Six Ways Planners Can Help Local Business in a Crisis

Necessary public health restrictions in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have resulted in immediate, severe impacts on businesses in communities large and small.

According to an analysis conducted by the Brookings Institution, 54 percent of small businesses employing a total of 47.8 million people are at immediate or near-term risk of closure. The scale of the problem is so large as to feel impossible to tackle.

Although the problem seems insurmountable, most of the challenges facing communities fit into one of two categories: response: those requiring immediate or near-immediate action, and recovery: those requiring a longer-term outlook and solutions.

Here we focus on response and look at some strategies that planners can use now to address immediate economic challenges and help communities weather the storm.

1. Ask About Your Business Community's Needs

Use surveys, virtual town halls, and one-on-one outreach to ask business owners about their immediate pain points and what would be most helpful to them in the near term. Use this feedback to inform your next steps.

2. Provide Guidance and Information

Work with your small business or economic development authority, chambers of commerce, and other local organizations to develop and distribute information and technical guidance.

This can include help understanding and taking advantage of state and federal stimulus funding, assistance working with lenders, and cashflow assessment and other technical assistance to help business owners develop a plan to stay afloat.

One example is the City of Milwaukee's COVID-19 Resources for Businesses. This comprehensive webpage lists resources from the local, state, and federal level, as well as toolkits, grants, and other assistance from non-profits and other organizations.

Ensure that your resources are inclusive by translating them into multiple languages and offering telephone-based support in addition to online information.

Identify the most vulnerable segments of your local economy and focus your one-on-one outreach on those areas and populations.

3. Offer Direct Financial Support

Ultimately, the challenge for most businesses comes down to severely reduced cash flow. By providing or communicating about microgrant and microloan opportunities, you can ensure businesses can maintain lease, utility, and some level of payroll obligations until the public health restrictions are lifted.

Communities like Amherst, Massachusetts; Berkeley, California; Fort Worth, Texas; and Glenwood, Colorado, are leveraging existing funds and finding new sources to provide their business communities with the cash influx they need.

4. Adjust Your Policies and Processes

As businesses shift the way they operate, do what you can to support these new approaches. Being flexible with zoning and other policies by providing temporary loading zones for carryout pickups, allowing to-go alcohol sales, and keeping your permitting and inspection processes moving (as much as you can safely allow) will support those businesses that have found innovative ways to remain in operation.

5. Promote Local Businesses

Use the power of your expertise and communications reach to help businesses get the word out and encourage safe patronage of their services.

Help markets or individual retailers set up virtual portals for online sales. Provide residents a way to discover open businesses and learn about adjusted hours — and make it easy for businesses to add themselves to these lists.

6. It's About More Than Restaurants and Retail

While some small manufacturers may still be running because they provide essential services or materials, others are shifting to manufacturing personal protection equipment and other needed equipment for health care and other front-line workers. Consider providing technical assistance or microgrants to help small manufacturers make that switch.

Whether your local manufacturers are changing gears or just hunkering down, connect them with resources specific to their needs, like the National Institute of Standards and Technology Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP).

What's Next?

There is no question that the coronavirus pandemic will have a lasting impact on communities. Businesses will close — some permanently — land use patterns may shift, behaviors will change, and planning will play a critical role in helping communities adjust and adapt to these long-term changes.

By responding to immediate community needs to help businesses survive the current disruptions, planners can help lay the groundwork for a faster and stronger recovery.

Top image: Getty Images photo.

About the Author
Karen Kazmierczak is the senior marketing manager at APA.

April 24, 2020

By Karen Kazmierczak