WILLMAR — Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down a vast majority of the economy at all levels, the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission saw business retention as one of its top goals. That has taken on an even greater significance with so many business owners finding themselves in uncharted territory.
“Business retention and business assistance has to be our top priority; trying to do whatever we can do for our local businesses,” said EDC Joint Operations Board Chair Kelly TerWisscha at an April 9 meeting.
TerWisscha, who is CEO of TerWisscha Construction, said business owners are scared and angry over the situation they find themselves in, and many are needing help they never thought they would need.
“Their working capital is gone. No one ever anticipated the government would just shut them down overnight and revenues would become zero at the same time their expenses continue to go on,” TerWisscha said.
EDC Executive Director Aaron Backman said most businesses never thought something like this would happen and they were caught off guard. Many reaching out to the EDC today never had much interaction with the organization before.
“A lot of small businesses typically have less than 15 days of cash on hand,” Backman said.
The EDC is giving those businesses technical assistance, helping them through the process of finding credit and assisting with other issues.
“We are hearing from businesses across the county,” said Connie Schmoll, EDC business development manager.
At the end of March the EDC approved a new loan program, the COVID-19 Business Assistance Loan Program, which provides eligible and approved businesses with a loan of up to $5,000 at zero percent interest to help them meet their financial obligations. In two weeks, Backman said 33 businesses asked for information and 14 have turned in completed applications. Another four applications are expected. So far the EDC Finance Committee has approved 10 loans and loan closing was expected to start on April 10.
“We are taking this very seriously. We are listening to the stories from the different businesses,” Backman said. “We are trying to be as responsive as we can be.”
“Get like-minded people together that are going through some of the same troubles, so they don’t feel so alone,” TerWisscha said, who also worries about the long term economic and health impacts the COVID-19 shut down could have on the business community. “We have never had uncertainty like this in our lifetimes.”
No new programs were approved at the meeting, but the EDC staff is reaching out to businesses, listening to what they need and networking with other EDCs and similar parties in the state.
“At this point we are just putting out fires,” Backman said. “Trying to help businesses, trying to give business people hope that they can move forward.”