State PPP borrowers put portal to use

In the first six weeks of operation, the U.S. Small Business Administration says more than 1 million Paycheck Protection Program borrowers have applied for direct forgiveness through a new portal.

Agency officials said the milestone highlights the efficiency of the more streamlined process, introduced Aug. 4 to speed up approvals.

"Our innovative direct forgiveness portal is helping our PPP borrowers get back to doing what they do best -- creating jobs and powering our nation's economy," SBA Administrator Isabella Guzman said in a statement.

In Arkansas, the SBA has granted forgiveness for 41,121 loans, reaching nearly $3 billion, through June 30, according to agency records. The SBA approved 77,073 paycheck protection loans in Arkansas for a total of $4.7 billion.

Arkansas forgiveness numbers, however, do not include approvals that have been granted since the portal opened last month. "We're on track with the national average and, with direct forgiveness, I think we're going to see those numbers creep up quite significantly," Edward Haddock, SBA's district director for Arkansas, said Friday.

The direct forgiveness portal allows borrowers to bypass lender certification and enter Paycheck Protection Program loan data and submit an application for approval. The portal uses a proprietary artificial intelligence-driven platform that is able to quickly score whether a loan meets approval, Haddock said.

Previously, borrowers had to compile documentation, submit it to their lender for review and the bank would then conduct further examination before submitting the application to the SBA.

The forgiveness portal is simpler and more efficient, according to Haddock. "This took a lot of the load off the banks to have to go in and create their own PPP review process," he said. "We're automating the process on behalf of the bank so they don't have to invest money into it."

Banks have to opt in and allow their customers to use the direct forgiveness portal. The system is being used primarily by smaller lenders that were using a manual approval process or by banks with limited resources to invest in building a fully automated infrastructure.

Larger institutions are not opting in because they already have effective systems in place, according to Haddock.

Arkansas Capital Corp. of Little Rock opted in so its small business borrowers could submit applications directly.

"It really came down to efficiency for us," said Bert King, senior vice president. "SBA is handling the authentication and submission so that makes it a lot easier for us."

Arkansas Capital issued about 1,200 Paycheck Protection Program loans in two rounds of funding in 2020 and this year.

Forgiveness approval is working smoothly, King said, noting that the lender approved about 750 loans in the first program round in 2020 and 720 of those have been granted forgiveness. "Our approval has been at 95% in the first round," King said.

Simmons Bank did not opt into the portal, officials said Friday. The bank already had a well-run system that Paycheck Protection Program borrowers were accustomed to using, Chief Financial Officer Jay Brogdon said.

"It's great that SBA has launched this portal but by the time SBA made this portal available, we already had a portal available to our customers," Brogdon said Friday. "It's been very efficient and it's essentially the same thing, it's just a Simmons portal. Our customers like it and our lenders like it."

Customers are acclimated to the existing system, Brogdon said. "It would have created a lot of confusion with our customers to replace an already-working portal with a new portal," he said.

Brogdon said Simmons is moving quickly to gain forgiveness approval. Statistics through June 30 show that Simmons issued $976 million in round one of Paycheck Protection Program loans and all but $141 million have been granted forgiveness. Loan information provided by the bank shows a steady improvement in forgiveness approvals -- $429 million in program loans were granted forgiveness from the first quarter to the second.

"When you extrapolate that out through the third quarter, there's not going to be far left to go," Brogdon said. Simmons will release fresh figures after the current quarter closes Sept. 30. "I think we look a lot like the industry in terms of forgiveness trends."

Lenders focused first on gaining forgiveness for round one of program loans since most are more than a year old. The second round of loans didn't close until May 31, which was the latter part of the second quarter.

The SBA reports that lenders opting to allow their borrowers access to the new portal have double from 600 when the portal opened to more than 1,400 today.

Paycheck Protection Program borrowers for the first time can complete a forgiveness application using a smartphone, the SBA said. The portal is available for eligible borrowers at