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Local economic development organization’s COVID-19 response

Local economic development organizations demonstrate leadership during coronavirus pandemic

As state and national governments struggle to combat COVID-19’s adverse health and economic consequences, local economic development organizations have played a critical leadership role in the Keweenaw’s coronavirus response. Working collaboratively, organizations like the Keweenaw Chamber of Commerce, the Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance (KEDA), and the Keweenaw Convention & Visitors Bureau (KCVB) have assisted employers access funding, technical outreach on state and federal programs and safety requirements, and emergency supplies in addition to playing a key advocacy role to harness additional emergency resources.

“We needed to come together to help our businesses and local employers make it through these unprecedented challenges,” said Tara Arens, the Chamber’s Manager. “Each of our organizations support the Keweenaw’s economy in different ways, but the only successful course of action was to work together. Hopefully, it inspired our communities to do the same.”

Deciphering executive orders

At the onset of the pandemic, a flurry of executive orders and lack of clear guidance for businesses generated a significant amount of confusion among local employers. Many businesses were caught off-guard by vague legal language, which businesses were qualified as “essential” and what requirements businesses needed to meet to reopen. To assist employers, KEDA, the Chamber and the KCVB streamlined communication with its members through consolidated emails, developing a business resource page on the Chamber’s website, and working with community health officials to better understand what was required.

“Our businesses were being overwhelmed with information from the state, industry groups, and other organizations,” said KEDA’s executive director Jeff Ratcliffe. “We acted as a filter for our members by synthesizing information from lots of different sources so that businesses could find what they needed.” Once businesses did reopen, efforts were launched to help inform consumers how to support local establishments.

Accessing emergency business financing

As business operating restrictions and consumer spending declines tightened employers’ cash reserves, the state and federal governments launched numerous programs to provide access to capital. While businesses welcomed the programs, application and eligibility requirements caused additional confusion. “It was important to help businesses know which programs they were eligible for and what the requirements were to access the financing,” explained Ratcliffe.

“All told, we estimate nearly 400 businesses and non-profits sought assistance from the MEDC and KEDA programs with over $1.3 million awarded in the three counties of the Keweenaw. Another 469 received Paycheck Protection Program loans totaling between $32.6 and $56.8 million.”

Access to emergency supplies

In May, as businesses struggled to access the necessary personal protection equipment (PPE) and other emergency supplies required to reopen, the group launched the Keweenaw Small Business Reopening Kit Program. The program, sponsored by Superior National Bank, Incredible Bank, UPPCO, Koppers, and Aspirus Keweenaw, provided nearly 200 free emergency kits with critical supplies to area employers.

“At the time, our businesses were really trying to conserve cash after being closed for two months and supplies were hard to come by because of the national demand for PPE, hand sanitizer and other supplies,” explained Brad Barnett, KCVB Director. “We were really proud of how quickly this came together and of our sponsors who stepped up to the plate.”

Advocacy and outreach

In September, the group launched the “Stay Safe, Stay Open” campaign over local radio waves and social media to promote the connection between CDC safety recommendations and local economic viability. The campaign worked with local partners like the Portage Health Foundation, the Western Upper Peninsula Planning & Development Region (WUPPDR), UPPCO, the Chamber, Northern Specialty Health and an anonymous donor to distribute hundreds of flyers, yard signs and sidewalk stickers throughout the Keweenaw Peninsula and Western Upper Peninsula. The campaign is expected to run through the fall and early winter.

“It was important to remind our community that our economy and our community’s health are intertwined,” said Barnett. “Employers can’t operate if their employees are quarantined. And our businesses cannot run if the state requires them to be closed. The best way to sustain our economy is to keep the virus in check.”

Operating in the new normal

While the business community is yearning for the return to some semblance of normality, the coronavirus’ impact has created a new landscape for employers. On Wednesday, the Chamber and KEDA, with other community organizations, discussed changes to the business environment during its first monthly breakfast update since the beginning of the pandemic. “It’s important to recognize that some of the core fundamentals have changed for businesses because consumer habits have behavior and the way we do business has shifted in response to the pandemic,” explained Arens. “Employers are more comfortable with employees working from home, and we’ve gotten used to using tools like Zoom which allows us to work from anywhere. Customers are also looking for new products and new ways to access them and our businesses will have to respond.”

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