by Marisa Stoller, Economic Development Specialist at Pueblo County, CO
When COVID hit with vigor in March, the country ground to a halt struggling to understand this virus and all its implications. Many of us in the economic development world were sent home to sit at our desks and try to hash out how this would affect our local economies. In Pueblo County, Colorado, a taskforce was quickly formed, first to discuss what might be done to lessen the impact of the COVID-19 shutdown, then to take determined and data-driven action.
Meet BERT (Business Economic Recovery Team)
The Pueblo Business Economic Recovery Team (Pueblo BERT) was led by Steven Trujillo, CEO of the local Latino Chamber of Commerce, and consisted of his organization, the Greater Pueblo Chamber, Pueblo West Chamber, City of Pueblo, Pueblo County Government, and a number of other entities including the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation (PEDCO), the Workforce Center, and the Small Business Development Center. Two local colleges, CSU-Pueblo and Pueblo Community College, and the local school districts also joined, along with several local business owners, banks, and community lending branches.
The first action was to publish a survey aimed at area businesses directly to find out what the new team could do to help. We discovered that business owners wanted high-quality information on a variety of topics, but weren’t sure where to get it. So we created a Resource Guide containing data on topics such as mask-wearing, symptom screenings, cleaning advice, how to protect workers and customers, and what to do if there is an outbreak in the workplace.
The Resource Guide also has a large section dedicated to funding sources for local, state, and beyond. It detailed how to apply for the PPP or an EIDL loan when those programs were open to applications, and highlighted the City and County grant funds that were made available to small businesses locally. The guide is an internet document, although anyone is able to print it. While the guide is continually updated to reflect new information, resources or closing dates, the link to the document remains constant so that it can be bookmarked and returned to.
Staying in Touch
Over the course of the next few months, BERT formed a smaller data committee that continued to measure business response and gather feedback through surveys. This told us that one of the biggest concerns initially for business owners was funding. Based on that feedback, BERT did several things. The first was to set up a program called Coffee with the SBA (Small Business Administration), which still happens every Wednesday at 8:30am. We have a representative from the SBA on Facebook Live with us to take questions about federal funding, how to apply for it, what the application looks like, and to give updates on applying for PPP relief and additional programs that may be rolled out in the future.
BERT also held a number of other panels with various partner organizations on topics that surveys showed were of concern to our business owners. These ranged from a lending panel discussing alternative funding sources for businesses who might not qualify for larger government programs to a workforce panel for employers concerned about their laid off employees, to a mental health guide during this time of COVID stress.
Surveys Spur Action
A number of BERT members provided their own resources in response to information gleaned from our surveys. The City of Pueblo received the initial feedback that a lot of businesses were having trouble accessing federal dollars and subsequently made $5 million in PEDCO funds available in grants and loans. To date, Pueblo County Government has provided over $1 million in economic recovery grants to local businesses and non-profits. It also opened its business loan fund up for smaller, $20,000 and under loans with a quick approval process to help tide over business owners in paying utilities, rent, and employees until federal money could come through and businesses could pivot as the economy gradually reopened.
Pueblo County Government also put together a novel response for small businesses who had little to no online presence by creating SupportingPueblo.com, an Amazon-like website that allowed local shops to set up as vendors on the platform and gave them the ability to offer pickup and delivery without straining their own individual resources.
Another BERT subcommittee recently finished an economic recovery plan, working with a consultant that was funded through some of the larger area businesses. While the plan does take the virus into account, it also concentrates on planning not just to return to pre-COVID economic levels but to emerge from this crisis stronger and more appealing to two key markets; businesses looking to reshore or escape expensive cities and individual workers with the newfound ability to work from anywhere. Pueblo is a beautiful place to live and recreate, with rivers running through town, the mountains nearby, and 300+ days of sunshine, and we want everyone to know it.
BERT continues to publish surveys, with the most recent asking businesses about their plans should the worst happen: a state-wide or local shutdown, similar to what occurred in March. We hope to gain insight on actions BERT can take to support our local businesses and protect them from the impact such a shutdown could cause.
More recently, with the rise in cases throughout the world, our BERT marketing committee has put together a series of videos aimed at the general public. In them, local business owners inform the community about the actions they are taking to keep their customers safe, and urge them to take steps themselves, such as washing hands and wearing masks, to help stop the spread of COVID and prevent another business shutdown.
It’s our last, best hope as we head into an uncertain winter, though not without the light of a potential vaccine shining into spring.