By Lorie Hailey
(Editor’s note: This is part 15 in our series about how Kentucky businesses are responding to the challenges presented by COVID-19. See the full report.)
After a year of evaluating the economic development needs of Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties, Northern Kentucky Tri-ED was set to announce its new goals and strategies in a series of speaking engagements beginning March 16.
Just days before, however, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear began announcing plans to close schools and businesses to help the commonwealth slow the spread of COVID-19. Events and gatherings across the state were canceled to help promote social distancing, including Tri-ED’s scheduled presentation to Northern Kentucky business leaders.
The challenges presented by the especially contagious coronavirus – and the commonwealth’s response to it – prompted the economic development company to again go back to the drawing board, this time looking for ways to help its community navigate these unchartered waters, said Lee Crume, Tri-ED’s president and CEO. Hired in April 2019, Crume led a reorganization of the company, which provides marketing, business retention and expansion, and entrepreneurship services for the region.
“We have pivoted several times over the last six weeks, but our focus has always been: how can we help our companies, communities and people in the region,” Crume said. “Our focus initially for the team was staying safe, serving our clients, sharpening our skills and sharing our resources and expertise in the region.”
As closures expanded, Tri-ED’s focus evolved to a theme of listen, connect and share – all tied to serving companies, communities and their elected leaders, and people, Crume said. Right away, the company conducted a business survey to help measure the economic effects of COVID-19. Tri-ED’s team launched an extensive outreach project – connecting with more than 500 companies in the region to learn how it could be helpful to them.
Tri-ED also made it a priority to connect with state officials, local staffs of the region’s congressional delegation, educational institutions and its regional economic development partners. The goal was to share information and contribute to their work, Crume said.
Through its outreach, Tri-ED learned that the mood among Northern Kentucky businesses and organizations is cautious and “leaning toward cautiously optimistic,” he said.
“Tri-ED has played an active role in connecting companies to resources they need – which ranges from providing supplier lists, connecting them with the Northern Kentucky Career Center, Workforce Investment Board and GROW NKY (a workforce development education initiative),” Crume said. “We know companies are doing all that they can to retain their employees. Some have reduced team members on shifts and then added an additional shift so employees are social distanced and they can keep the majority of their employees working. GROW and the Career Center are helping to match laid off employees to companies that are hiring.”
Blue North, Tri-ED’s entrepreneurship team, has been hosting virtual events to highlight how small businesses pivoted early during the pandemic. Blue North also launched Learn & Build workshops for entrepreneurs to create an online presence, Crume said.
Crume shared more about Tri-ED’s response with The Lane Report for our Making It Work series.
The Lane Report: When did Tri-ED start working on its COVID-19 response plan? What steps did you take to implement it?
Lee Crume: Our team met the week of March 9 and by March 13 shared policies for the office and our work in light of COVID-19. We committed to “keeping the office open” by continuing our work and allowing the team to choose to work from home. We began having regular conference calls to coordinate work and update everyone. We started fully working from home when Gov. Beshear implemented the healthy at home mandate.
TLR: It seems like the bulk of Tri-ED’s work lately has required your staff to quickly adapt to new circumstances, acquire lots of new information and be able to quickly disseminate it to the community. What have been the biggest challenges?
Crume: Our team has adapted very well by maintaining a constant stream of communication – through Microsoft Teams and team calls on a near daily basis. We divided our work and some folks pivoted into new work to increase our outreach so we could reach as many people as possible in a short amount of time. We’re hearing good things about our efforts.
TLR: Tell me about some of the collaboration you’ve done with other organizations to best serve the community.
Crume: We’ve collaborated most closely with the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. They’re our partner in serving the business community. As soon as we heard about the proposed federal relief legislation and Payment Protection Program in the CARES Act, we scheduled a series of three webinars with accounting and law firms in our region to share how companies could get access and details of the legislation. We had 500 participants across the three webinars. The CARES Act passed during our first webinar. We’ve also held conference calls and a webinar with the chamber for our community partners on the CARES Act so that they can provide assistance to businesses and answer their questions.
We partnered with the NKY Chamber and Horizon Community Funds of Northern Kentucky to launch the NKY Restaurant Relief Fund. In the last two weeks, we raised more than $40,000 and awarded $1,000 grants to 30 restaurants in our region. More than $31,000 in gift card receipts for 112 restaurants have been uploaded through the program. We want as many businesses as possible to survive.
We’re working with Janet Harrah, senior director of the Center for Economic Analysis and Development at Northern Kentucky University, as she develops a model to estimate the impact the reduction in taxes will have on cities and counties in our region.
Our economic development team is communicating daily with GROW NKY, the Northern Kentucky Career Center and Northern Kentucky Workforce Investment Board as we work with employers who are hiring and also reducing their workforce.
We’re in touch on a weekly basis with REDI Cincinnati and the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development. We provided administrative assistance to the city of Fort Mitchell for its Small Business Emergency Grant Program, which launched on April 17. Grants of $2,500 for 34 businesses were announced Friday (April 24), and checks will be in mail to help businesses that were mandated to close or impacted due to COVID-19.
TLR: How has COVID-19 affected your organization? Are employees working from home? If so, when did that happen and what were the challenges to setting up? Did you have to purchase new equipment or conduct special training for employees?
Crume: Our team quickly became a fully functional virtual company – with all of us working remotely from home, although we are checking the mail in our office. Folks are communicating if they need to go to the office for files so we have a limited number of people there at a time.
Our daily meetings have brought members of our team, who normally don’t work together very often, closer together. For example, our entrepreneurship team, Blue North, has worked closer with our economic development team. We’re currently working on our Healthy at Work policy as the state gradually reopens.
TLR: Are you operating with a full staff right now?
Crume: Yes, we have worked very hard to reduce our budget and maintain a full staff, which is our goal moving forward. Budget cuts are necessary because the drastic drop in air travel means that we will have limits revenue coming in over the next several months. Our revenues come from a rental car tax at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, which like other airports, has seen a major decline in passenger volume.
TLR: Tell me about your PPE outreach. How many Northern Kentucky companies have taken on the challenge to help provide PPEs?
Crume: In our outreach to over 500 companies about the pandemic, we have inquired about PPE – asking if companies have PPE to donate, can they pivot and make PPE, or do they need connections within the state for PPE? We have worked with the Cabinet for Economic Development on its outreach to companies for PPE and manufacturing PPE. We’ve worked closely with Kentucky Association of Manufacturers, our community partners, the NKY Chamber, GROW NKY and REDI Cincinnati on this initiative.
Companies large and small are contributing PPE locally and to the state. Fabulous Furs estimates it has produced 20,000 masks – they donated them to the City of Covington emergency personnel and provided them to St. Elizabeth Healthcare. It also has masks for sale on its website.
Tri State Plastics is making plastic face shields. They had an order for 100,000 a few weeks ago. This is a new product and market for them.
AquiSense Technologies launched a new product, the PearlSurface 24G8, that cleans three N95 masks at a time with UV rays. It is expanding its facility and hiring as it ramps up production of this new machine.
Camco Chemical Co. has donated PPE and hand sanitizer to the Independence Fire District and to the state.
TLR: What are the best resources for businesses who are struggling financially or struggling with being able to implement best practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
Crume: We want Tri-ED to be the first contact for a company when they don’t know where to turn. We are working every day to identify resources to help answer companies’ questions. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, we urge companies to consult the CDC, Department of Labor and Northern Kentucky Health Department guidelines and recommendations.
TLR: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
Crume: I’m incredibly proud of our team and the way everyone has stepped up to contribute to helping our businesses, entrepreneurs and community partners. We are working in new areas and collaborating more than ever within Northern Kentucky and the Cincinnati region. The community has stepped up to support the NKY Restaurant Relief Fund. It’s inspiring to be part of a program that is making a difference for small businesses and entrepreneurs in our region.
Share your story
We want to hear how business leaders across the state have responded to the challenges presented by COVID-19 and the efforts to stop the spread of it. If your business would like to share its story, email Lorie at [email protected].