Owning Our Pandemic

Photo by Peggy Gunderson Strategic Brand Marketing

COVID-19 was the pandemic everyone saw coming, yet nobody prepared for. The boogeyman in plain sight. Once the virus came to Wisconsin, County Executive Joe Parisi recognized that if he didnt act soon, the nightmare would last well past nightfall.

Joes first efforts were toward ensuring the homeless would have access to food and shelter. When satisfied that food banks and local shelters were in a better position to handle the ongoing crisis, he addressed Dane Countys small businesses as part of our comprehensive package to help people through the worst of the economic hardships brought about by the pandemic.

Things happened fast. Office of the County Executive Chief of Staff Josh Wescott says, We quickly identified the real difficulties and real challenges that would be born by our local small businesses. Given the well-established, really incredible relationship we have with Dane Buy Local, Joe had asked me to reach out to Colin Murray [executive director of Dane Buy Local] and assess whats happening. To no surprise, the report was not favorable. There were a lot of businesses in really precarious situations, and thats where we got to work, connected the dots, and built the program.

Monies allocated to the program started at $250,000. Colin says, Weve been working with the Latino Chamber, the Black Chamber, and WWBIC to help get that word out there along with efforts weve done on our own. At one point, applications were coming in at the rate of one every two minutes. Josh checked in with Colin to see how the program was going, and Colin told him that the money wasnt enough. So the funds were upped to $550,000. Again, Josh reached out, and again, more money was needed.

Josh says, When we first connected with Colin and talked about a way to build something like this, we were among really the first handful of places in the country that were even doing this because we started the program with county money. Over time, as the federal CARES Act came in and other things to all communities, other communities were then able to build a program from the foundation up. But it took weeks for that money to arrive to communities, and we had already had our program up and going. The framework was in place. … We really hit the ground running really early on in the pandemic, and it did help get the process going for folks and get money out there quicker than other places were able to.

By the time this article is in print, Colin anticipates that the programs entire $10.8 million will have been allocated to small businesses through grant agreements. To put that number in perspective, Colin pointed out that the next closest program hes seen is on the East Coast at around $5 million. One survey out there has indicated that up to 42 percent of small businesses will not survive the pandemic, says Colin. I think because of this program, what Joe has done, what the county has
done, were going to reduce that percentage here. Were going to have businesses disappear, but were going to reduce that number significantly because of this program and Joes foresight in understanding the importance of small businesses.

Photograph by Peggy Gunderson Strategic Brand Marketing

Joe says, Dane County is incredibly unique if you look at Mount Horeb, Monroe Street, etc. Throughout the county, a big part of our uniqueness is our local business community and what they bring. We benefit in so many ways. We obviously benefit in a big way economically, but its also part of our identity as a community, and its important that we not take that for granted and work to maintain that because it doesnt just happen. These folks need to be supported.

When it comes to the impact of that support, Colin says, Dane County has exceeded the expectations. I received a phone call about two weeks ago from a dog groomer in Middleton, and she said, The grant will save my business. This will make a difference. And Ive heard that from a number of different businesses now that this makes all the difference in the world between keeping the doors open or not.

People have an idea of what goes into running a small business, but some dont understand the constant financial struggles experienced throughout the year. Small businesses are started by our neighbors following their dreams and taking a gamble with their finances to provide a service or sell goods they think will enhance the community. Since many Dane County businesses focus on paying their employees a fair wage and investing in quality above all else, their overhead takes up a large percentage of their profits. A lot of small businesses only have two to four weeks worth of cash reserves to survive, says Colin. So even with our program, wed like to be turning that response rate around quicker. For some of these businesses, Im sure it feels like an eternity. Were doing it in less than a months time from when you apply to when you get a check, but for a lot of these businesses, thats still very, very stressful to them.

Joe says, Its important to realize what small businesses do for us every day. Whos out there sponsoring the little league teams? Whos out there every time a community has an event, be it a festival or a fundraiser for a local nonprofit? The people who step up are the folks in our local business community, and they do it every day and often without fanfare.

Dining and shopping local have long been part of Dane County culture. Thanks to so many of you, Joe found himself in a position where he was able to take action immediately. The value of this program at this point in time cant be overstated for our communitys welfare, and if the overwhelming majority of health experts are correct, this virus isnt going away anytime soon.

Its even more important than ever to shop at our local businesses, says Joe. Its part of what we need for our recovery. Its a direct investment in the community that pays huge dividends.

Joes recovery package also focuses on childcare services and eviction prevention.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Dane County.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson