We’re all painfully aware of the impacts of the Covid 19 crisis on our own pocketbooks and worried about how our families will be able to bounce back once the enforced hiatus is over. What might the “new normal” look like?
Many of us are also wondering about the big financial picture. How will the economy ultimately be affected on a global, national and regional level?
If there’s anyone well-positioned to take the economic temperature of Ulster County and environs, it’s Ward Todd, former county legislature chair and president/CEO since 2003 of the Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce. The county’s largest business-advocacy organization, the chamber has more than 1000 members – most of them small businesses, and about ten percent of them not-for-profits. Many of these businesses are struggling right now, and Todd and his colleagues at the organization are certainly hearing about it.
“We’ve always been an advocate for small businesses,” Todd avers, noting that the chamber has been spearheading “Shop Local” campaigns for years. “We’re best-known for the large attendance at our monthly breakfasts and mixers, which typically draw 200 to 300 or more. Our members like the chance to see a lot of other members at once.”
The organization has now been forced to retool its approach completely, in order to continue providing services to its membership and institute new methods of assisting local businesses in getting through the pandemic. Todd says the chamber itself was classified as non-essential at first and expected to shut down. That designation was overturned three days later when Todd appealed it to the state.
Like so many other businesses these days, the Chamber of Commerce has had to go almost entirely virtual, including the monthly breakfasts. “When Covid hit, the first thing we did was upgrade the website and remove all pictures of people congregating,” Todd said. “In their place, the first thing we added was a page of resources for getting through Covid 19. It’s a clearinghouse for information that’s updated daily.”
Any announcements from government agencies about types of assistance available to hard-hit businesses, such as the federal Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans, are posted on this page (www.ulsterchamber.org/covid-19-resources) immediately upon release, with links, application forms and contact information.
Also on the website now is a page titled How Our Members Are Adapting to a Changing Economy (www.ulsterchamber.org/how-our-members-are-adapting-to-a-changing-economy), which highlights the ways in which entrepreneurial ingenuity is being applied by county businesses to find what good might be turned up by this ill wind. Ward points to one success story in Usheco, Inc., a Rosendale-based manufacturer that in the past was noted for making the plastic components for adaptive toys for handicapped children produced by Community Playthings at the Woodcrest Bruderhof. “They’ve retooled their operation to create face shields and sneeze guards,” he explains.
Another small-scale local operation, Maria Cabrera Alterations & Tailoring in Kingston, was threatened with shutdown as a non-essential business. Cabrera and her crew immediately began sewing face masks and donating them to healthcare and other frontline workers – over 5000 of them already. She was among the first to be featured in the Hometown Healthcare Hero spotlight on the chamber’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ulster.chamber. “Every day we have a new person we honor,” says Todd.
Shifting over to an enhanced presence on social media was a major decision that came out of a staff meeting on March 17. Director of membership management Jess Davis assumed greater responsibilities as the organization’s “social media maven” (she also delivers masks made by Maria Cabrera to local businesses). “We already had a Facebook page, but we formed a new Facebook group called Ulster Eateries United, because we knew that food services were going to be among those most seriously hurt by this,” Todd relates. “It signed up more than 2000 members in one day, and is now up to 9500.” Restaurants are free to post their menus, daily specials, pickup and delivery policies on the page. Membership in another new Facebook group, Ulster Small Businesses United, has already reached the 2000 mark.
Todd cites Linda Bradford, whose Stone House Tavern had just opened up in Stone Ridge when the virus came to town, as a local innovator. “She reached out to the chamber team with questions and concerns in the first few days when things seemed uncertain for restaurant owners, and then she quickly put a plan into action. Linda got creative with her to-go menu, instituted delivery services, offered to help neighbors of Stone House Tavern with eggs, butter or even a cup of milk, if needed. She also partnered with Town of Rochester supervisor Mike Baden to use her restaurant to prepare and deliver meals to help feed neighbors in need, as part of county executive Pat Ryan’s new Project Resilience program.”
Ryan and congressman Antonio Delgado will be the guest speakers at the next Virtual Friday Forum, to be livestreamed this Friday, May 8 from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. on the website and on Facebook Live. New York comptroller Tom DiNapoli will be the guest at the next Virtual Breakfast on May 19.
Acknowledging that “It’s obvious that [the crisis] is devastating to everybody in all sectors,” Todd sees the county’s $600-million tourism economy as most financially vulnerable to an extended lockdown. Much depends on “the ability of some resorts to open up. March and April are usually their downtime, but they have great potential to suffer moving forward.”
He can see both sides of local people’s concern about the return of visitors from hot spots like New York City: “We just have to hope that people are as educated coming north as we want them to be, and observe social distancing.” On the plus side, he says, “I see a huge upsurge in our real-estate market, similar to after 9/11. What’s different now is the technology. People now have the ability to work from home. Real-estate agents have told me that they just sold two houses online, sight unseen.”
Businesses showing the greatest resilience during the pandemic are those most able to adapt to online marketing and “navigate the social-media waters,” according to Todd. “There’s a lot more digital shopping … including local small businesses. I think we’ll see a lot more of that going forward.”
Even not-for-profit organizations are finding success with virtual fundraising events, he says, citing the recent Kentucky Derby virtual telethon that netted $25,000 for People’s Place, a major agent for food delivery for the needy in the Kingston area.
Ward has been impressed by the way the crisis has been bringing out the best in the local community: “All the people donating time and money to help others – it’s absolutely amazing to me.”
He looks forward to post-Covid America including “a newfound appreciation of spending quality time as a family. I hope that we all continue that kind of commitment … enjoying sitting down as a family unit in the dining room, like they did in my parents’ time. People are learning how to cook, taking up gardening now who never got into it before, making life more sustainable.” Given the creativity of small entrepreneurs and the widespread rediscovery of the joys of home and hearth, maybe the new normal won’t be turn out to be so bad after all.