As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in mid-March, PA Gov. Tom Wolf closed the doors on “non-essential businesses.” Ask any small business owner, and they are likely to say their business is essential . . . to them.
Membership-driven, business advocacy groups like the Chamber of the Northern Poconos and the Greater Honesdale Partnership (GHP) know that better than most. Both organizations started out by polling their members regarding how they were planning to deal with the oncoming crisis.
“This situation was so unprecedented, they didn’t know what to do,” explained Chamber Interim Director Holly Przasnyski. “We realized we needed to turn from advocating for our businesses to advocating to them.”
GHP Director Lisa Burns agreed. “They were all bewildered but they were staying open,” she said, at least in the beginning. “So we asked, ‘What can we do?’”
Both agencies quickly realized that if their member businesses needed to pivot, they were going to need to change the way they operated as well.
With multiple government agencies establishing a variety of relief programs, just keeping on top of the ever-changing situation was more than one organization could handle. Thanks to existing collaborative relationships forged through Wayne Tomorrow, Burns and Przasnyski worked with Mary Beth Wood from WEDCO, and Helene Mancuso from the Wayne Pike Workforce Alliance to make sure Wayne County had eyes and ears on every facet of the state and federal response. Mancuso played a key role in helping local businesses and individuals work through the Unemployment Compensation system and the others spent many hours on phone calls with the US Small Business Administration, the NEPA Alliance, US Chamber of Commerce and others.
“The rules were changing every day,” said Burns, who noted that six weeks into the pandemic she learned businesses did not have to stop operating, they just had to stop face-to-face interactions with their customers.
Both GHP and the Chamber then began increasing their online presence, at first to disperse information about relief programs, but later in support of their members.
At the Chamber of the Northern Poconos they launched Operation Gift Card to encourage people to shop local, while the Greater Honesdale Partnership created public service announcements to help keep local merchants on people’s minds. Burns said they even recorded some videos for a virtual tour to help businesses “stay visible.”
Some business owners looked around for unique and innovative ways to keep their operations afloat, but some lacked the technical knowledge or skills to take full advantage of the digital tools and platforms now available. The Chamber’s Holly Przasnyski said she worked with businesses to help them with things like develop an online presence or enable online credit card payments, and then developed webinars for others in the same position.
She noted social media pages designed to let people know who was open for business were sought out by local shoppers and became virtual marketplaces. “We offered our services to our members and to the broader business community because that strengthens the economy for everyone.”
DEVELOPING A NEW ROLE
Both organizations are now working to create a new role for themselves, although neither can really say what that looks like right now. One thing they do know, they will need to be agile and capable of facing a perpetually changing business landscape.
They are also relying on their members to help them find their way. “Just because we are not doing something,” said Przasynyski, “doesn’t mean we can’t, it just may mean we hadn’t thought about it before.”
Adaptability will be a key factor in success. “I don’t think anyone can thrive if they don’t like change,” Burns explained. “If you are set in your ways, you will not thrive.”
One major concern, however, is funding. GHP and the Chamber, like WEDCO, are funded through their membership dues, which have not been a top priority for many businesses right now. To add to the problem, the state and federal legislatures have not included funding for these types of non-profits in their COVID-19 relief packages.
In spite of the challenges, both agencies are committed to embracing the opportunities. For GHP, Burns said that may mean taking a whole new approach to the downtown revitalization grant the organization received this spring. For example, she said, “Maybe we should be developing our sidewalks to be ‘curbside friendly.’”