The University of Mary Washington Center for Economic Development has taken the pulse of area businesses suffering from the impact of COVID-19 and pivoted to provide help.
It’s creating free, 30-minute online classes and brief podcasts on topics that are causing owners the most pain at a time when many are having to shut their doors, and providing consultation online in keeping with new social distancing requirements.
“We haven’t had this kind of challenge since [Hurricane] Isabel, and all the processes have changed,” said Brian Baker, the center’s executive director for economic development.
He said his office, which includes the UMW Small Business Center, has been getting four times as many calls as normal. He and his staff decided to survey businesses in Planning Districts 16, 17 and 18 to see how prepared they were and what problems they were facing.
Of the 138 who responded, 92 percent said that they were in distress, and only 23 percent said that they had business interruption insurance, cash, savings or other means to stay solvent. But what was really surprising, Baker said, was that only 26 percent said that they were prepared to work digitally or remotely, and only half were actually doing it.
“It seems like most are trying to love Zoom, Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams,” he said.
Baker said his own office, which includes the UMW Small Business Center and UMW EagleWorks Accelerator and Innovation Center, realized that it had to redefine its services to remain relevant and available to clients. They’re using Zoom to hold virtual staff meetings so concerns can be addressed faster. They are also offering remote seminars and workshops as webinars.
“It gives us audio, visual and the ability for sharing screens,” he said. “It cuts down on travel and is making us rethink our own space, to be quite frank. It gives us the ability to provide distance learning for just about anywhere.”
The center created free webinars available through its website, economicdevelopment.umw.edu. Topics include managing a business during a chaotic time, business interruption planning, using the web and social media, and loan modifications and deferrals.
“We realize that, from an information standpoint, people need high value,” Baker said. “We’re going to engage experts in the community to deliver content. These will be brief, actionable and there’s not going to be a charge.”
The webinars kicked off with one on how businesses can work with bankers and landlords to modify or defer a loan or rent. If a business has a lease, for example, the owner should talk to the landlord now and ask if payments can be deferred, turned into a balloon payment or forgiven.
“Try to salvage your cash flow as well as you can,” Baker said.
Baker encourages all small companies to apply for a loan through the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. Loans can be worth up to $2 million, and be used for such things as payroll, employee sick leave and accounts payable. The interest rate is 3.75 percent for small businesses.
“They can defer the loan for six months, and if they recover well they can cancel it,” he said. “But if they’re not in the queue, it can take 30 days to get approved.”
The center is also developing “high impact, high assistance, high directive” podcasts that will be three minutes or less, Baker said. Information about the podcasts and the webinars will be published in he center’s newsletter and on its website.
Assistance is also being provided in partnership with the Rappahannock Economic Development Corporation to make sure clients get their questions answered quickly and effectively, he said.
REDCO is certified through the Small Business Administration to facilitate the 504 Loan Program. It provides commercial real estate and long-term equipment financing to small businesses, and long-term rates “are at an all-time low,” according to its LinkedIn page, A 20-year fixed-rate is 2.8 percent.
“Businesses will come out [of the COVID-19 crisis] leaner, meaner and more savvy,” Baker said. “In the meantime, we need to learn how to stem the tide of losses in revenue.”
He pointed to one client in the trade field who decided that he’d get quotes for future business if he couldn’t do business now. He’s using his phone to create video so he can show project dimensions remotely.
“You still have social distancing, but are able to tee up enough information to get a quote,” Baker said. “You’re able to help people feel comfortable and they’re not in a health-threatening environment.”
As companies like his are discovering, the digital age is providing new tools for doing business.
“You get lulled into thinking in traditional ways,” Baker said. “This has forced us to come out of our shells. Once we’re outside of the pandemic, businesses will continue to use many of these things for many years to come.”
Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407