The Brookings Institution hosted a webinar on June 10 titled “Mitigating the Economic Impacts of COVID-19 in Rural Areas.” Moderator Tracy Hadden Loh, a Brookings Institution Fellow, engaged three experts on rural economies in looking back at the pandemic’s effect on two small towns and across rural America, and how recovery steps are taking shape. The panelists were Lindsey Dotson, executive director of the Main Street Downtown Development Authority in Charlevoix, Michigan; Todd Wolford, executive director of Downtown Wytheville, Inc., Wytheville, Virginia; and Matt Wagner, vice president of revitalization programs at the National Main Street Center.
Much of the discussion initially focused on Charlevoix and Wytheville’s early pandemic experiences, which were shared by rural communities across the country. Participants spent those weeks helping small businesses adapt to new guidelines, understand and take advantage of new resources and apply for Paycheck Protection Program and Emergency Impact and Disaster Loans.
“One of the value propositions of leaders like Lindsey and Todd in these communities is that small businesses not only need these programmatic efforts, but they need connectivity — the connections to them,” noted National Main Street Center’s Wagner. “They need education about them. They need people to convene around certain issues, and that’s a really critical role that folks like Main Street Programs and Lindsey and Todd fulfill in rural America.”
‘Who’s Going First?’
The rural town representatives had already alluded to the importance of small businesses in their communities reinventing themselves to cope with current circumstances and in the longer term. What will that reinvention look like, and how will Dotson and Wolford know that it’s working? That question from the moderator steered the discussion to the future.
“We’re waiting — who’s going to go first?” said Dotson of Charlevoix, on the northwest coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The town does a brisk tourism business in the summer months, under normal circumstances.
“We’ve already seen a lot of people taking time off trying to get online, so entering into either online sales or online ordering, if you’re a restaurant. These are just services that they hadn’t had — there wasn’t an urgent need to do that to survive,” Dotson pointed out. “We’ve seen a lot of people that have moved forward with those types of initiatives. But there are others who might not be able to do that financially, and so that’s a limitation. We’ve been catapulted forward into the world of modern technology and commerce. We’re trying to channel some educational and funding opportunities to move some of those initiatives forward for people who aren’t able to because of the impact of COVID-19.”
Wytheville’s Todd Wolford concurred: “E-commerce and online sales and things like that are becoming a huge point for people. The businesses that had those platforms during this situation have been much more successful, so that’s been a positive thing, and we’re trying to educate our business community and some of our older business owners about what that looks like and trying to teach them how to do so.”
Wytheville is in southwestern Virginia, where Interstates 77 and 81 intersect.
“Some of our businesses don’t even have a social media presence, and we all know that’s everything for a small business,” said Wolford. “So we’re trying to be that organization that helps them reinvent themselves, because we’re the boots on the ground. We’re trying to make sure that our businesses remain sustainable, and we keep the ones that we currently have, and we don’t lose any. But also we need to pivot ourselves to be able to reinvent the wheel a little bit on what business recruitment and economic development looks like for Main Street in the future. What kind of businesses do we want to target and recruit, and how are we going to pitch that to them now, because we have some good incentives in place?
“Our organization is taking a look at the next two or three years and what that might look like — connecting those dots and being that catalyst for information for our businesses,” added Wolford. “We want them to come to us and trust us that we’re going to have the partners at the table that can help these people. We need to have the answers, and we’re going to make sure that we do that moving forward.”