A Community United: Businesses and organizations team up to survive economic challenges of COVID-19

By Lorie Hailey

Unity and action.

That’s how the Central Kentucky business community responded to the biggest challenge it had ever encountered. Within days of the news that Kentucky had its first COVID-19 case, businesses, organizations and individuals joined forces to find ways to help each other navigate the unchartered waters of a global pandemic and the necessary shutdown to help slow the virus’ spread.

What followed was a testament to the community’s strength, compassion and ingenuity. Right away, multiple response funds were established, programs were created to address the needs of workers affected by the shutdown of nonessential businesses, and community agencies had refocused their missions to offer resources to those in need.

The hospitality industry was one of the sectors most affected by the governor’s executive order closing Kentucky’s nonessential businesses. In March, a restaurant workers relief program was created to help restaurant workers who had been laid off.

The Restaurant Workers Relief Program, spearheaded by the LEE Initiative, offered no-cost meals and supplies to restaurant workers who had been laid off or had their hours or pay significantly reduced. It was a partnership between Makers Mark, the LEE Initiative and LexUNITE.

“Lexington is a shining example of what happens when the small business community comes together with one common goal: unity,” LexUnite says on its website.

LexUNITE served as a centralized resource to provide the community answers as to how and when they could help, and to see how their support of the local economy was making an impact in real time.

FoodChain, a nonprofit that forges links between community and fresh food through education and demonstration of sustainable food systems, also set its sights on helping displaced food service workers. It teamed up with VisitLEX, Keeneland and the E.E. Murry Family Foundation to create Nourish Lexington, an initiative to utilize the skills of hospitality workers unemployed due to the COVID-19 closings to provide prepared meals to those in need of immediate access to food. In exchange for preparing and delivering meals, food service workers received a $60 payment for a four-hour shift in FoodChain’s kitchen facility at the corner of Jefferson and West Sixth streets in downtown Lexington. Meals were distributed to hospitality industry families, other families in need, seniors in affordable housing apartment complexes, and children and their families through family resource coordinators.

FoodChain and Nourish Lexington provided more than 100,000 fresh meals to those in need between April and July, and it hopes to provide at least 100,000 more before the end of 2020.

Many businesses and restaurants donated food. Lexington Marriott City Center’s culinary team donated food to FoodChain and Glean Kentucky. The Lexington restaurants that make up the Bluegrass Hospitality Group teamed up with local businesses to feed first responders. Gluten Free Miracles and Azur Restaurant provided free meals to people with food allergies and sensitivities. The Jeff Ruby Foundation donated $50,000 to the Restaurant Workers Relief Program.

United Way of the Bluegrass and Blue Grass Community Foundation (BGCF) joined forces to launch a Coronavirus Response Fund to help provide critical support to vulnerable populations across Central Kentucky and Appalachia. The two agencies worked closely with the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government (LFUCG) to streamline fundraising and impact efforts. The fund was announced on March 19, days before the governor’s “Healthy at Home” executive order took effect.

“As a coalition we can leverage and combine resources to assist more people and make meaningful impacts,” said Timothy Johnson, UWBG president and CEO, when the fund was announced.

The groups worked together to deploy rapid-response grants to community-based organizations providing relief and essential resources to communities that were disproportionately impacted by the crisis. As of September, the fund has awarded more than $830,000 in charitable grants to 47 partners across 14 counties, according to BGCF.

In May, Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton created the Mayor’s Fund for the Greater Good to support key social service agencies that serve the most vulnerable individuals and families in Lexington. The city also worked with God’s Pantry Food Bank and United Way of the Bluegrass to prepackage food boxes for families in need.

“Lexington has shown during the pandemic how our business community comes together when faced with crisis,” Gorton said.

Across every sector, businesses and organizations are helping their fellow Central Kentuckians weather the storm. The region’s chambers of commerce and economic development agencies, meanwhile, have been working behind the scenes to secure the resources that those businesses need to survive.

Taking action to meet businesses’ evolving needs

For Central Kentucky businesses, social distancing requirements meant adapting to a new reality: implementing remote work strategies, enforcing strict measures to limit interaction between employees, or shutting down for an undetermined amount of time – all while finding ways to sustain their businesses in time of economic uncertainty unmatched in modern history.

The simultaneous fear of infection and financial disaster blurred the view of the path forward. There was no playbook for how to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. So Commerce Lexington (CLEX) and its partners wrote one.

On March 4, when the first case was confirmed in Lexington, the city’s chamber of commerce and economic development organization mobilized its personnel to help meet the evolving needs of its members and the community. CLEX had a new mission: help businesses weather the storm.

“Our team’s immediate focus shifted to helping existing businesses in the region navigate the abrupt stoppage in the economy and providing support to the City of Lexington in efforts to find available personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline workers,” said Gina Greathouse, executive vice president of economic development.

CLEX surveyed its members about their biggest concerns and used the information to determine how to best serve the needs of Lexington businesses. Most members said worries about the financial future of their business was the biggest concern, followed by employee safety, hours, payroll and layoffs, said Bob Quick, CLEX’s president and CEO.

The organization began distributing business-related COVID-19 information and resources via its website and email newsletters. The website was later expanded to include a collection of helpful materials, including resources for business owners, information about small-business assistance, unemployment insurance claim instructions and other aid for individuals, a list of member restaurants with links to order carryout and gift cards, and a list of member banks for easy access to loan and financial assistance.

CLEX staff reached out to as many of its 1,900-plus members as possible to connect them with resources, elected officials and their staffs to “ensure that their voices are heard as state and federal assistance programs have been developed,” Quick said.

Because COVID-19 is a new infection, information about it and the plans to help stop its spread are constantly evolving. Businesses trying to make it through one day at a time sometimes struggled to keep up with the almost-daily changes. That made CLEX’s outreach critical to many business owners.

The team also worked to get Fayette County added to the Small Business Administration’s disaster declarations list so that Lexington businesses could apply for business disaster loan programs. And, using an online database, CLEX helped match individuals looking for jobs with companies that still had openings.

The chamber launched its 4 O’Clock Focus webinar series in an effort to evolve with the new “ever-changing” business landscape and assist businesses during the reopening of the economy. The series features local business experts discussing topics like legal guidance and compliance in the new workplace, the new face of retail, IT management during a pandemic, the future of real estate after COVID-19, Small Business Administration (SBA) loan guidance, and perseverance and flexibility in times of crisis, among others.

CLEX published an “Introductory Guide to Reopening Your Business in the Era of COVID-19” and offered sample communication and reopening business plans to members, including separate templates for manufacturers. It also participated in and helped provide guidance for the economic sectors selected for “Mayor Gorton’s Economic Recovery Blueprint,” released in May.

The Scott County-Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and other organizations shared Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky’s back-to-work playbook, which included recommendations based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and best practices developed by Toyota Working Groups.

In addition to links to COVID-19 information sources, the chamber also posted a list of local PPE vendors, testing links and a link to the state chamber’s Who’s Hiring database.

The Jessamine County Chamber of Commerce listed PPE vendors on its website. It also continued to host and promote ribbon-cutting ceremonies for member businesses, masks included, of course.

The Winchester-Clark County Chamber of Commerce took on several social media-based initiatives to help businesses stay afloat, including Takeout Tuesday and Fast Food Friday, during which participants could win prizes for patronizing local restaurants.

The Frankfort Area Chamber of Commerce offered COVID-19 resources on its website, including a job bank, mental health information, unemployment handbooks and a community tip jar, an online fund to help support the Frankfort community’s service industry workers. The Kentucky Capital Development Corp. in Frankfort also offered assistance, providing videos about reopening, a list of COVID-19 supply vendors, and other tips.

Extending a financial lifeline to small businesses

In July, CLEX’s role in helping businesses survive the pandemic evolved from providing information about business assistance to administering the assistance.

While more than 5,200 Lexington businesses received funding from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), many of the city’s small businesses did not receive it. To encourage economic development, LFUCG created the Small Business Economic Stimulus Program. CLEX’s Access Loan Program was contracted to manage the $2.5 million program, which aimed to help companies affected by revenue losses and incurred expenses from the coronavirus pandemic.

Fayette County businesses and nonprofits with 50 or fewer employees and restaurants with fewer than 100 employees were eligible to receive up to $25,000 as a reimbursement for actual expenses incurred. The program had a goal of using at least half of the funds to help minority- and women-owned businesses. It surpassed that goal.

About 250 businesses applied for the grants, and 167 of them were funded – 67% owned by women and minorities, said Tyrone Tyra, senior vice president for community and minority business development, who led the program.

A total of $2,377,980 was awarded. The smallest grant was $500 for PPE, Tyra said. A volunteer committee of banking and economic development leaders helped him review the applications. The goal was to quickly assist as many businesses as possible.

“It was a massive undertaking,” he said. “Our seven volunteers spent over 150 hours reviewing the applications over a six- to seven-week period.”

The business owners who were awarded grants were very grateful for the assistance, Tyra said. He received numerous thank-you notes from people who said the grants had saved their businesses.

Looking to the future

The pandemic has paused many normal activities, but local leaders have stressed the importance of looking toward the future.

In Gorton’s Blueprint for Economic Recovery, the mayor outlined the path forward suggested by the city’s COVID-19 economic recovery committee, comprised of local business and economic development leaders.

“It is important that we get our economy moving and get our people back to work in a safe and healthy way. This is the challenge of our times – a challenge we will meet and overcome,” she said in the plan’s introduction.

Recovering from the pandemic will no doubt be difficult, she said, but not impossible.

“Opportunity is often missed because it comes dressed in overalls and looks like work,” Gorton said. “In Lexington, we’re not afraid of work, and we don’t miss opportunities for our city.”

CLEX’s economic development team agrees. Though COVID-19 continues to be a health threat and an economic factor, the immediate needs of local companies trying to survive the economic fallout of the pandemic remain a priority. But that doesn’t mean economic development efforts have been left behind.

In May, Greathouse’s economic development team hosted its first virtual client visit. As technology becomes increasingly more important, Greathouse expects that economic development officials will need to become experts in using virtual and geospatial programs, and will sometimes need access to drone footage.

“Although personal relationships with consultants will take longer to develop, they will remain critical, and we still expect in-person meetings for the final community rounds of project recruiting,” she said. “And while many companies are seeing a decline in revenue this year, economic incentives will remain an important factor for those making decisions on business relocation and expansion.”

CLEX continues to call on existing companies and remains in close contact with site-section consultants. The organization is optimistic about new clients who were in the pipeline before the pandemic began.

“For the longer term, many of our industry association experts are anticipating the reshoring of production for items that are key to our national security, such as medicines, pharmaceuticals, auto parts, aerospace, defense and others. This will impact the commercial real estate market, so communities will need to be prepared with appropriately zoned land and available buildings,” Greathouse said. “As the U.S. economy continues to restart, greater access to capital, job training and infrastructure will be necessary.”

As of September, CLEX’s economic development division has responded to 33 calls from prospects interested in finding a new location or expanding an existing location, and has had 14 client visits to the Lexington area. It also has had 87 existing business visits, and there are 48 active projects.

The path forward, though seemingly littered with obstacles, is navigable. Economic development investments continue in Central Kentucky.

Summit Biosciences, a Lexington-based pharmaceutical company focused on nasal spray medicines, announced in late September that it is expanding its operation at the University of Kentucky Coldstream Research Campus. The $19 million-plus investment is expected to create up to 78 full-time jobs. Also in September, Wilde Brands Inc., a producer of high-protein, keto-diet-friendly snack chips made from all-natural chicken breast, announced plans for a $9.78 million, 50-job production and distribution facility in Clark County.

Liquidation company The Recon Group announced plans in August to expand its Frankfort facility and create 90 news jobs, said Terri Bradshaw, CEO of Kentucky Capital Development Corp.

In July, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear announced the creation of Kentucky Commercialization Ventures (KCV), a new public-private partnership unique in the U.S. that aims to develop academic innovations into job-creating tech companies. And dozens of new small businesses have opened their doors since COVID-19 first struck the commonwealth. In Woodford County alone, five new businesses have had ribbon-cutting ceremonies since the end of August – a bakery, an exercise facility, an automotive repair center, a therapeutic equine facility and an insurance company.

COVID-19 may be the biggest challenge businesses have faced in modern history, but Central Kentucky’s communities have shown that when everyone works together, there is nothing they can’t handle. l