Last night’s CitySpeak livestream event, hosted by The Corvallis Advocate and co-presented by City Club of Corvallis, featured local economic leaders addressing the current COVID crisis, and economic recovery for businesses in the city of Corvallis and surrounding areas.
Moderated by Editor-in-Chief Stevie Beisswanger and Publisher Steve Schultz, the livestream Q&A included four panelists: Benton County Commissioner Xan Augerot, Economic Development Manager for Corvallis and Benton County Kate Porsche, CEO of the Corvallis Foundry Collective Brad Attig, and owner of The Inkwell Home Store Pat Lampton, who also serves as a board member of Corvallis’ Economic Development Advisory Committee and at Citizens Bank.
A Fast Reopening
To begin the event, panelists were asked to speak on the unexpected speed of the county’s ability to reopen, which came on Friday, May 15.
Augerot commented, “It did come much faster than we expected…[We] expected a period where we could allow businesses to adjust to the fact that doors are open again.”
She described the beginning of the reopening process as “an avalanche.” Augerot hopes that the speed of reopening being permissible does not pressure businesses to open too soon, and states that Benton County was not even immediately prepared upon receiving the news – the city’s own offices will not be reopened to the public until Tuesday, May 26.
To assist businesses with this process, Porsche highlighted the Benton County Business Guide, which will be coming out this week to give establishments guidance and information for reopening responsibly. There is also an email address – email@example.com – and hotline – (541) 766-6120 – set up if businesses have specific questions about this process.
Local Economic Recovery
As for the overall state of economic recovery in Corvallis, Augerot said, “We are planning on several different scenarios for budget cuts, given the decrease in income tax revenues that we project at the state level.”
She also noted up to a 20 percent reduction in state dollars that Corvallis currently receives. That could mean a loss of up to $13 million.
Certain sectors will be hit harder than others by these budget cuts – most of all, the public works department and public health services, as well as parole and probation, and juvenile and drug court departments, because they are dependent on state funding.
Suggestions for Local Businesses
Currently, small businesses are experiencing anxiety and uncertainty, particularly about loans, reopening, and overall economic recovery, according to Porsche’s observations as Economic Development Manager.
Lampton, who is a business owner himself, stated that businesses are concerned for good reason.
“You’re going to see a lot of little businesses go away as a result of this. The longer this goes on, the more of these businesses will go away.” He explained that Citizens Bank has already pumped in over $26 million in loans for Corvallis and Philomath, just to support businesses and keep them afloat.
Porsche’s main suggestion for businesses is to reopen responsibly: “Just because Benton County has reopened, does not mean that you need to.”
“My biggest fear,” she said, “is that we have the potential to move backwards from this, to go back to a space where things are no longer open.”
Attig from The Foundry, which seeks to act as a shared workspace and mainstream innovation hub, re-emphasized the need to reopen safely, commenting that it’s extremely important to make sure customers feel safe. In addition, he stated that businesses need to be looking forward, despite how difficult it is during these uncertain times. For consumers, he encourages that they support local businesses as much as they can.
Lampton urged other business owners to make sure they have proper financial help from accountants, bankers, and advisors. He also noted that the Economic Development Office and the Chamber of Commerce are excellent resources that businesses should take advantage of.
The first audience question was related to the vandalism downtown that occurred over last weekend, begging the question: Where can businesses turn to get help with another unprecedented financial challenge?
Porsche brought up the GoFundMe page that was set up by Executive Director of the Downtown Corvallis Association Jennifer Moreland to help pay for the thousands of dollars in damage. Over $19,000 has been raised by community members as of May 19 to help the 17 businesses affected.
Another audience question asked if there is a way, through this crisis, for businesses to evolve to become more green.
Attig commented, “We’re green when we buy local.” He stated that it’s important for economic dollars to stay in Corvallis and help support businesses that have fewer resources than others.
Porsche has high hopes for a greener economy, adding, “I don’t know a more innovative, forward-thinking community than Corvallis and Benton County when it comes to the environment.”
One viewer asked how consumers can be more informed as to the safety precautions businesses require. Porsche pointed to a list of businesses provided by the Economic Development Office that is beginning to include information about these requirements, and Attig added that more communication between businesses and consumers is important for this process.
A recent overcrowding incident at a local restaurant sparked the question of whether or not the county will ever enforce certain safety protocols for residents. Augerot stated that the most likely form of intervention is education, and that she does not anticipate any citations, because the state’s current orders are forms of guidance, not regulations.
Augerot answered another question, which asked what the metrics are to make a second closing possible. She explained that there is a point where a second closing could occur if a second spike in positive cases happens. Her biggest concern is the reopening of Oregon State University, which presents a lot of problems for social distancing and is considered a large risk factor for the county.
Porsche added that businesses need to plan ahead of time for a second closure, stating, “Expect the best; prepare for the worst.”
The last couple of questions related to the funding available for economic recovery.
Porsche responded that there is a round of funding for the county that will soon become available for businesses and nonprofits – money that could possibly extend to the Corvallis Sewing Brigade, which has been instrumental in providing masks for the local community. She also added that as of now, a total of 12 businesses have applied for the county’s available grants, with one third of applications coming from minority-owned businesses and 25 percent from rural parts of Benton County.
By Cara Nixon