If there was a way to predict the seismic upheaval in the Brainerd lakes area economy amid COVID-19 lockdowns across the nation, there wasn’t any recent historical precedent for small businesses and development organizations to reference for guidance.
“This is uncharted territory,” said Tyler Glynn, director of the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp., regarding economic fallout from mass quarantine and shelter-in-place orders mandated by the state. “I don’t think we’ve seen anything of this magnitude, certainly not in my lifetime. … I think that’s where a lot of the anxiety is from a small business perspective, that they don’t know what’s going to happen next or how long the coronavirus is going to take.”
“I don’t know, maybe a natural disaster? Tornado, hurricane — things of that nature,” said Greg Bergman, director of the Small Business Development Center at Central Lakes College, of what the recent economic downturn compares to. “It’s hitting people pretty hard.”
“The shockwaves of this pandemic, even if you’re not involved with a business on the ‘frontlines,’ you’re going to feel it — maybe not in a week, or three weeks, or three months — but it’s going to affect you eventually and you’re going to feel it,” said Matt Kilian, president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce. “You’re looking at restaurant owners and say they have to keep their doors closed until May 1? That’s tough.”
Even while many of their employees work from home after Gov. Tim Walz’s stay home order Wednesday, economic development organizations are working to prop up local small businesses across central Minnesota, noted Bergman, Kilian and Glynn. All three said they’d been involved in a near-constant series of meetings, phone calls and consultations over the last few days, describing their efforts as “triaging” and working to “stop the hemorrhaging.”
At the local level, it’s difficult to pinpoint a clear economic outlook just yet, said Kilian, who cited as an example it’s impossible to say if the Brainerd lakes area is now suddenly experiencing a surge of unemployment after years of labor shortages. Nationally, the stock market saw trillions in losses through recent weeks that harked back to crashes in 2008, 1987 and even the end of the 1920s, while unemployment claims climbed to over 3.2 million in March — an unprecedented surge, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Locally in the Brainerd lakes area, Kilian said government agencies and development organizations are struggling to keep up with a massive surge in applications for emergency loans and unemployment benefits to the point that websites have repeatedly crashed.
In an anecdotal sense, Kilian, Bergman and Glynn all reported that hospitality and tourism-based businesses are feeling the brunt of the COVID-19 fallout, with face-to-face-only customer service entities — for example, hair salons — as well as the self-employed rounding out those most affected.
Still, Kilian added, while things may be difficult in the short term, local businesses and communities have the ability to navigate economic upheaval, before the markets rise out of the current slump and get reinvigorated with a post-pandemic boom in business.
“I think the long-term outlook is good, but in the short-term is a lot of frustration,” Kilian said. “What they’re telling me that we’re looking at is ‘deep and steep,’ with a sharp downward trend in business for now that’ll eventually be followed by a steep increase after people get out when the pandemic’s over.”
In the meantime, both profit and nonprofit entities will be leaning on a variety of funding sources at the local, state and federal level to weather the storm. Kilian, Glynn and Bergman said they’re working to direct small business owners to $30 million in small business emergency loans from the state of Minnesota, or utilizing the economic disaster loan program from the Small Business Administration, or dipping into the revolving Unified Fund at BLAEDC, among other opportunities for stop-gap solutions.
Small business owners are keeping an eye on the $2.2 trillion relief package being hashed out on Capitol Hill, Kilian noted, with everything from $350 billion in forgivable loans for small businesses down to $1,200 in direct payments to adults making up to $75,000 a year — all of it now being considered as a means to staunch the financial bleeding, at least for the time being.
It’s a matter of working cohesively with lenders, creditors and business entities across the state, Glynn said, which starts with clear lines of communication — no easy task during a COVID-19 pandemic. Kilian said organizations like the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce are actively working to create networking opportunities for small business owners — not only to connect during anxious times of social isolation, but to collaborate and share notes on ways to weather the crisis.
As for Glynn, he had a glowing assessment of the Brainerd lakes area community and their response to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think we’re doing great in that regard,” Glynn said. “We’re coming together, helping each other, keeping lines of communication open, working in collaboration with one another. The response from the community has been wonderful. As long as we look out for each other, I think we’ll be fine.”