Spokane Journal of Business

Public, private partnerships work to protect lives, livelihoods

Diverse groups rallying to staunch virus, save jobs

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We’re all in this together. 

Those simple, familiar words have taken on new weight as the public health crisis of COVID-19 continues to dominate our daily lives. Sacrifices made to stem the spread of infection in Washington communities are making a difference.

Now, as we begin to restart our economy safely, the challenges ahead are significant and persistent.

Small business owners never have things easy, but this global pandemic has hit Main Street hard. The National Bureau of Economic Research reported only 38% of firms thought they would still be in business if the crisis lasted six more months. 

In this new world, 40% to 60% of all small businesses may fail without additional technical assistance, mentorship, access to personal protective equipment, retooling, and rental assistance or relief. Public-private partnerships need to address these issues if businesses hope to reopen successfully.

Right from the start of the COVID-19 crisis, a broad collection of state and local public, private, and nonprofit partners stepped up to battle the medical emergency. We have to do the same to help Washington employers and workers weather the economic emergency.

We care about lives and livelihoods. So how do we reopen our economy safely?

Keeping customers, employees, and communities safe is most important.

Our state’s small businesses need extra support to not only comply but thrive in this new normal.

The Association of Washington Business’ Rebound and Recovery Task Force is one example of the collaboration necessary to succeed. The task force includes leaders in small and midsize businesses from industries like manufacturing, retail, agriculture, professional services, and hospitality. 

In this uncharted territory, we’re working together to identify and address short- and long-term needs. 

Launched in May, the Rebound and Recovery portal at www.reboundandrecovery.org provides businesses with numerous resources, such as “Made in Washington” personal protective equipment. 

There’s also a tool kit to help businesses adapt. Employers can use customizable templates to create everything from a Safe Work Plan and store signage to social media content to help communicate how they are taking action to protect workers and customers.

Locally, chambers of commerce and economic development groups are partnering to connect businesses with needed resources, including emergency grants and other sources of funding.

Greater Spokane Incorporated, for example, partnered with Spokane County to provide free PPE and teamed with the Downtown Spokane Partnership, Greater Spokane Valley Chamber, Inland Northwest Business Alliance, Visit Spokane, and the West Plains Chamber on more business assistance. They created a list of nearly a dozen local providers of such equipment.

The Washington state Department of Commerce administered $10 million in Working Washington emergency grants through local economic development partners like GSI. In Spokane, 61 small businesses received over $580,000. The program initially received 10 times more grant applications than funds available, and another round is coming soon.

In addition, in Spokane and around the state, Commerce teamed with organizations such as AHANA, Spokane Independent Metro Business Alliance, and INBA, to provide locally based, culturally connected business resiliency assistance to ethnic, minority, and historically disadvantaged communities.

While all small businesses are struggling to cope, pandemic impact stats are grimmer for people of color and immigrants, with business closure estimates ranging from 26% for Asian business owners to 41% for black business owners. 

If prolonged, disproportionate early-stage impacts on minority- and immigrant-owned businesses will perpetuate broader inequality.

We are committed to make sure that small business owners from every community and every culture can access available programs and resources.

Sustained collaborations of the type taking hold throughout our state today, while born in an emergency, will remain essential to long-term business resilience.

Checking individual agendas at the door and rallying together to serve the singular goal of protecting lives and livelihoods, we will give Washington’s small businesses the fighting chance they seek to succeed.

Lisa Brown is director of the Washington State Department of Commerce and co-chairs Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start Economic Recovery Advisory Group. Michelle Hege, CEO of DH in Spokane, co-chairs the Association of Washington Business Rebound and Recovery Task Force.

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