Friendly City Businesses Struggle With Unfriendly New Normal

Apr 14, 2020

Credit Bridget Manley

In a few short weeks, COVID-19 has changed the way small businesses operate. WMRA’s Bridget Manley has the first in a two-part report on the health of small business in Harrisonburg.

After it became apparent that two weeks wasn’t going to be enough time to flatten the curve in Harrisonburg, daily life for many of us was spent grappling with homeschool routines or how to telecommute. But for small business owners, it meant grim realizations that employees might be laid off, operations might slow down, and doors might even close for good.

Andrea Dono is the Executive Director at Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, or HDR. She’s been helping small businesses find grant money and other resources in the last few weeks. She says the timing of the virus couldn’t be worse for small businesses in Harrisonburg.

Andrea Dono is the Executive Director at Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.
Credit Courtesy of Andrea Dono

ANDREA DONO: This has just been a really tough couple of weeks. I mean, ever since we had the first confirmed case in our region, business for downtown had slowed down considerably, and then soon just came to like, a grinding halt. So, a lot of businesses are trying to figure out what do we do now, because no one ever has a plan for a pandemic.

Dono says that many local businesses rely on the “spring bump” - a burst in sales brought when the college population is active and the weather is warm - to get them through the slow summer months. The uncertainty of when they can open, or who will be there to shop, is creating anxiety for business owners throughout the city.

BRIAN SHULL: You have a wide range of emotions, you know. Everybody wants to be able to protect their employees the best way that they can. They don’t want to lose them.

Brian Shull is the Economic Development Director for the City of Harrisonburg. He says that many businesses are in survival mode, while others are working to keep up with the demand.

SHULL: You have a few businesses that are essential businesses who continue to operate, and they need to make sure they have healthy employees on the lines producing, so that continues too. We are such a big food producing area in the Shenandoah Valley, so a lot of those farms are really still going full bore trying to meet the supply chain needs.

Brian Shull is the Economic Development Director for the City of Harrisonburg.
Credit Courtesy of Brian Shull

Shull says that for those needing assistance, several city and county economic groups have joined forces to create a Small Business Support Task Force.

Their aim is to mobilize resources and grant money as fast as possible.

SHULL: One local program, we did get money out right away. Harrisonburg Economic Development had a loan program for about eight years, and we were able to immediately pivot and get $105,000 out to 23 different businesses within a one-week time frame. We did get that money out on the street very quickly. Of course, $105,000 doesn’t go real far, but we did get that out quickly.

The Task Force is in the process of awarding $5,000 small business grants to Harrisonburg and Rockingham County businesses.

The Small Business Administration uses specific banks to issue funds, and those banks have had to rapidly deploy online portals to deal with the flood of applications. HDR and other small business organizations worked to help Harrisonburg businesses understand what programs were available, and even crowdsourced information between other local businesses to help everyone know when portals went live.

Credit Bridget Manley

DONO: Everyone was texting each other saying ‘hey, your bank is open, I think your bank is open too…(Laughs)…So like, everyone was trying to help each other, saying ‘hey, you need to go apply’ because one of the things the government was saying was that the funds are limited and its basically going to be first come, first serve. So, timing was really of the essence.

Dono says that the overall health of small business in downtown Harrisonburg is still unknown - and she’s not sure how to forecast who will be left when the dust settles.

DONO: [deep sigh] You know, I don’t know. I think there’s so many unknowns right now, that it’s really hard to predict what’s going to happen. I think we’re going to continue to see the unemployment rate rise, and what that could do is make it difficult for people who do want to support businesses, if they are just barely getting by or they are trying to get back into the workforce, it’s going to be hard for folks to help each other bounce back.

In Part 2, we’ll explore some of the innovative ways local businesses have been able to keep operating, and even give back to those less fortunate during these strange new times.