By Mary Anne Petrillo, CEO West Business Development Center 

Our rural economy is in free fall. To give some context to this statement, consider this: you may not yet know a single person who has contracted coronavirus, but you certainly know someone whose livelihood has been decimated by this pandemic. Through no fault of their own, across the country, small business owners have seen their futures shuttered overnight, and with no sales insight and bills mounting daily, they are scared, frustrated and angry. By nature, entrepreneurs are resourceful individuals, but in these times their resourcefulness has been tested to the max.

We should expect this economic distress to last well beyond the end of the shelter-in-place order. While we may be grateful for some relief the CARES Act provides, the reality is that rural communities such as Mendocino County have a fragile entrepreneurial ecosystem in the best of times. A lack of resources like pervasive broadband, philanthropic foundations, access to capital, a highly skilled workforce and wealthy consumers means it will be considerably more difficult for our business community to rebound after this crisis.

In California, the Small Business Administration (SBA) as well as Governor Newsom’s Office of Economic Development (GO-Biz) are doing what they can to stem the tide of this situation. However, no organization was prepared for a crisis with a global impact of this magnitude. 

Locally, West Center is the SBA agency for the County of Mendocino. For more than 30 years, West has been serving the business community with free small business advice and training in every aspect of the entrepreneurial journey. As you might imagine, our phone lines are now flooded with calls for guidance in cash flow and human resource management, and where to find financial aid. And although we continue to work closely with SBA and Go-Biz to provide timely and accurate information, this is just not enough.

It will take more than any one group or person to help save the myriad small businesses—retail, tourism, fishing, agriculture, nonprofits, food services, farms, manufacturing, and more—that make up the lifeblood of our community.  Local people with a collaborative mindset must think differently, apply existing tools, and also create new resources to drive the action needed for our small businesses to survive.

Set the Stage for Rural Innovations 

Not every business is in dire straits and many can weather the storm. But the current situation gives rise to questions about how to utilize our land and resources differently. We need to think about developing partnerships with business owners, institutions, and local government officials to bring workers back to their jobs in safe environments that allow for social distancing, and to assess how work environments must evolve. We need to identify the barriers that can be lowered quickly to ramp up production, grow employment, and create shift work for smaller workforce to be productive without fear of contamination. 

Now is the time to start training workers and incentive citizens to learn new skills to manage work in the post-pandemic world. This can be an opportunity for the education and technology communities to immediately train and release workers with new skills into the workforce. Citizens rising to their potential, combined with creating a work-for-hire program using newly learned skills, could have a profound impact on tomorrow’s economy.

In the three years I have headed West Center I have come across business owners who fear the adoption of technology. Unfortunately, many of these small businesses are now seeing the crippling effects of not adapting technology to at least some parts of their operations. In the new world being born out of this crisis, online commerce may be the only survival mechanism for many businesses. Brick and mortar operations who have set up online store experiences to complement their storefronts are surviving. Just think what could happen if we built local digital teams with the goal of helping our small businesses ALL #GoDigital by June 2020!

Buy Local Should be the Rule of the Land

Commerce does not move without customers. In this time of sheltering in place, we need our community and our small businesses, which are such a vital part of our community, more than ever. Buying local while sheltering in place needs to be the priority because it can provide immediate help to family, friends, and neighbors. To support this effort, West Center has launched, a pilot marketplace to help all businesses get the word out on their current delivery capacity. However, in order for this to succeed, we need the unquestionable support of County Supervisors, City Council members, Municipal Advisory Councils, and nonprofit organizations to vocally and actively engage in a “Buy Local†campaign. 

Create an Economic Resiliency Lifeline

Many business owners need cash right now. The federal government loan programs are designed to help those with stable operations who can wait two to four months to receive a cash infusion. But not all business owners are in that position; they are facing the sudden loss of their life savings and investment, which is only compounded by their responsibility to their employees, suppliers, and community. 

Owners need cash now and one answer is to organize partnerships and create funds to provide businesses with resiliency grants. We need lending institutions and governmental agencies to provide micro-loans with no interest. As a technical assistance provider, West Center can work with business owners and partner with lending institutions to help ensure the solvency of businesses. Other financial considerations are debt forgiveness, tax payment delays (when possible), and alternative uses of state and federal funds that are currently meant for economic development.  This is the time to partner with other rural regional communities to advocate and secure redeployment to help rural micro-businesses. 

It is not too late to enact change. County and state officials are doing an amazing job and giving the proper health directives to keep our region safe. Healthcare workers and first responders are doing extraordinary work with great speed to respond to this pandemic. We are all grateful for this.

Alongside our smart health procedures, we must enact smart economic procedures to help us rebound quickly. Individuals and organizations who still have the capacity to help, now is the time to turn our attention to helping the small business entrepreneur so when the shelter-in-place is lifted and we go back to Main Street there will be something besides empty storefronts welcoming us back.

How to do Business in the Age of Corona Virus

As the number of California cases of COVID-19 rises, the team at West Business Development Center wants you to know we are here to help. Stay informed and learn more about the resources available on our Corona Virus Resource Page Here.

West Business Development Center is providing ongoing educational webinars on a variety of topics to help business during COVID-19. Visit this page on West Center’s website for more information or contact us here to work with a business adviser.