Friday, March 20, 2020

Oshkosh community leaders step up to support local small businesses as COVID-19 pushes customers away

Photo by Joseph Schulz
The emptiness of Oshkosh's downtown at 9 a.m. Friday, March 20, demonstrates the effects of COVID-19.
By Joseph Schulz
As local businesses begin to feel the financial strain of the coronavirus outbreak, community leaders are stepping up to provide a helping hand.

The Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp., the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau, The Chamber of Commerce and the city of Oshkosh are all working to reduce the burden placed on local businesses by the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic.

GO-EDC's Revolving Loan Fund Committee has suspended all principal and interest payments for current loan recipients through the Greater Oshkosh Revolving Loan Fund and Greater Oshkosh Capital Catalyst Fund for three months, according to a press release.

Additional suspensions could occur, as GO-EDC will evaluate the situation month to month, the release noted. GO-EDC's loans were established to fill "lending gaps" for businesses and startups in the area and are managed by GO-EDC, the release added.

Jason White, the CEO of GO-EDC, said suspending loan payments gives businesses a little breathing room to help them ride out the economic downturn.

"We believe that they don't need one more headache," White said. "There's about a hundred things that each business is going to worry about right now."

Some businesses have already closed and no longer have any revenue, while others are dealing with reduced revenues from the state's order banning dine-in service at bars and restaurants, he said.

White added that in five years, none of the businesses that have taken loans out with GO-EDC have ever missed a payment and that this is the organization's way of giving back.

"Everyone's world came to a crashing halt in the last couple of days, and everyone's kind of in survival mode right now waiting to see what happens next," White said. "I think for our part, we've been trying to make sure that our toolbox is filled with tools."

One of those tools is getting businesses prepared to apply for economic injury disaster loans when they become available, White noted.

GO-EDC has been helping businesses send information to Gov. Tony Evers, showing that they've suffered an economic injury.

White said GO-EDC wants to ensure that when the time is right, businesses can "pull the lever" and apply.

That time may be soon approaching, as on Wednesday Evers submitted a request to the U.S. Small Business Administration for a declaration to assist businesses in the form of SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

"Surveys of businesses over the past several days, as well as inquiries into our Joint Incident Command, illustrate that the COVID-19 incident has had a significant impact on a variety of businesses within Wisconsin," Evers' request read.

If the governor's request is approved, businesses can start submitting applications for low-interest loans up to $2 million to help overcome the financial downturn spurred by the pandemic.

Beyond GO-EDC's efforts, the CVB has created a "what's open in Oshkosh" list on its website that's updated as often as possible.

CVB Executive Director Amy Albright said the list is meant to help businesses negatively impacted by the pandemic.

"We're just trying to do our part to encourage people to support local at this time as much as possible," she said.

The list is updated hour by hour because the CVB is trying to be a resource for local businesses as they go through a period of financial uncertainty, Albright added.

Beyond CVB's efforts, the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce started a Bar and Restaurant Emergency Micro Loan program to help chamber member businesses impacted by the ban on dine-in services, according to the loan application.

The chamber has made $60,000 available for the program, and eligible businesses can receive up to $2,500, the application states.

Loans will be extended with an interest rate of 3.5% with an interest-free period; payments will start on Oct. 1 and will consist of $100 per month for 26 months, the application noted.

Rob Kleman, the chamber's senior vice president for economic development, said the program mirrors a similar program implemented in 2010 when Main Street was undergoing reconstruction.

"Many businesses are being impacted by the coronavirus," Kleman said. "This is for a targeted group that's really feeling it right now."

Beyond offering loans, the chamber is also trying to connect workers with resources to ease the burden of losing a job due to the outbreak, said Patti Andresen-Shew, education and talent development director for the chamber of commerce.

The chamber is trying to include information about how to collect unemployment, and other resources for people out of work on its website, she said.

"Whenever the state comes out with information, we're making sure that we get it on the chamber website," Andresen-Shew said.

Both GO-EDC and the chamber are lobbying lawmakers to help ease the burden on workers and businesses, according to White and Kleman.

One of the thing's being lobbied for is a waiver of the one week wait period to collect unemployment, White said.

"I think that's step one, to make that assistance immediately available to folks," White said.

Another item being lobbied for is more leniency for companies that owe money to their lenders, he added.

"Hopefully, the Senate and Congress as a whole will adopt [those items], and the president will sign them," White said.

Kleman added that the chamber sent communications to Senators Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin, seeking relief for local businesses.

In terms of the local government response, City Manager Mark Rohloff, at the March 18 Oshkosh Common Council meeting, said he's been working with local economic development groups to look at ways the city can help local businesses weather the storm.

He said the city may ease zoning regulations on a short-term basis to help restaurants with drop-offs and pick-ups.

The city will also look at potentially giving restaurants and bar owners a 90-day extension on liquor licensing fees. Rohloff said he would see if licensing deadlines depend on state regulation, or if it's something the city has the power to extend.

"If we've got flexibility, I think we ought to look at it," Rohloff said. "We ought to be looking at any type of flexibility during this time."

Kleman said it's been remarkable to see so many groups come together to support Oshkosh's small business community.

"There are so many organizations coming together to try to help businesses and individuals work through these challenging times," he said. "We're all working together. We have to get through this and work hard to come out on the other side of things."

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