Mid-valley business are going to new lengths to try to stay current on federal and state relief efforts and network more effectively in the coronavirus era.
“Let’s Keep Connected,” a group formed by economic development and small-business backers, is just in its infancy, but it is already holding three webinars per week and drew in more than 160 participants for a session last Tuesday with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley.
“We recognized there was a need for businesses to have a live forum to get connected by resources and ask questions,” said Kate Porsche, manager of the Corvallis/Benton County economic development office.
“With everything so fluid right now, we felt like an interactive forum would be helpful for businesses.”
A key driver has been longtime mid-valley entrepreneur Brad Attig, who currently is running the Foundry Collective in Corvallis.
“We wanted to develop something that complemented and supplemented the one-way push of information going out to small- and mid-sized businesses,” Attig said. “Having an interactive forum means businesses can engage, ask questions, and we can make sure they’re getting the information they need.”
Others have joined, most notably the small business development center at Linn-Benton Community College. Its advisers have participated in all of the webinars held to date.
“We’re proud to be a part of the Let’s Keep Connected regional effort and advisers will continue to participate in forums,” said Jeff Flesch, business marketing manager at LBCC.
Others contributing, amid a swirling sea of acronynms, include the Rural Development Initiative (RDI), the Business Association of Monroe (BAM), Business Oregon, Visit Corvallis, the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition (CSC) the Small Business Administration (SBA) and mid-valley chambers of commerce.
Albany jumps in
Albany was considering a similar effort to engage with Linn County businesses, but “we decided to join hands and put things on together rather than do something separate,” said Seth Sherry, economic development manager for the city.
“The reason is simple. We share the same ‘resource partners.' Further, the federal relief programs are the same whether you’re in Albany or Corvallis."
Last Tuesday, Sherry was on the Merkley webinar to talk up new emergency business loans approved by the Albany City Council. Friday, a participant wanted to help the coronavirus effort by making personal protective equipment “so I connected him with our state partner leading that effort,” Sherry said.
“All in all, we are thrilled to have such a great relationship with our partners across the river and have been promoting the Let’s Keep Connected series for any and all who want to participate. I think it’s a wonderful series and am so grateful for the Foundry, who really stepped up to take leadership on this.”
One of the key benefits for local business is that participating in a webinar takes just a two-hour chunk out of your week. Seeking out information on your own would be far more time-consuming, says Jason DeBose, an entrepreneur who runs two Corvallis-based businesses, Rogue Sky and Element Grow.
“As a member of the small business community, we are truly in uncharted waters with currents shifting by the hour,” said DuBose, a board member of the Willamette Innovators Network who moved to Oregon from Silicon Valley. He got his start here by leasing space at Attig’s Foundry.
“Before I engaged with the LKC, I was spending hours a day scouring news, federal, state and banking websites for guidance, of which the information was outdated at best, and tragically conflicting at worst. For me, the LKC group has been laser-focused on providing real-time information and real local resources with real people to help us, and by design, condensed in less than two hours a week with a video conference.
“For me, spending only two hours a week with LKC allows me to focus on my business, pivot into new markets and products that we've never considered before and ensure our long-term viability.”
DuBose has made just such a pivot in recent days with his Element Grow operation. The company manufactures high-tech air filtration equipment, usually for cannabis operations. Now, however, he is aiming toward commercial clean room operations such as field hospitals and businesses looking to reduce the chance of coronavirus infection in their facilities.
Attig was the moderator, while Porsche, Sherry and Melissa Murphy of Business Oregon also spoke at Tuesday’s session with Sen. Merkley, which included participants from as far away as Eastern Oregon and Portland.
A wide range of topics were discussed, including relief for farmers, restaurants and bars, employee retention tax credits, Oregon’s workshare program and what future phases of federal relief might look like.
Merkley concluded by asking Oregonians to give his office feedback on what is working and what is not. He also issued a plea for Oregonians to do planned acts of kindness and reach out to friends and family during this time of social distancing.
Participants already are thinking ahead to how local businesses can recover from the chaos of the virus and succeed moving forward.
“Yes, we are in a crisis,” DuBose said, “but after the crisis is over … what is your plan? I think that’s where the SBDC can have a lot of impact.”
Sherry expressed interest in broadening the economic development effort, noting the success of regional groups such as Economic Development of Central Oregon (EDCO) and the Salem Economic Development Corporation (SEDCOR).
“In lieu of not having a regional economic development organization like our counties to the north and east we work extremely had to collaborate whenever possible," he said. "That being said, having a multi-county economic development organization established in the future would be beneficial to all in response to a crisis like this, but also in the normal day to day of our work.”