BY THOM MACLEAN, BIG SKY ECONOMIC DEVLEOPMENT PROJECT MANAGER PROJECT LEAD FOR THE YELLOWSTONE COUNTY ECONOMIC RESPONSE & RECOVERY TEAM
Yellowstone County has encountered and overcome many economic challenges in its history, but the scale, scope, and speed of the economic stress imposed by the current COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. Under the duress of this global crisis, our region’s solid, growing economy mutated within weeks into a recession of evolving proportions. Our civic, business, and community leaders responded immediately, forming the Yellowstone County Economic Response and Recovery Team to respond to the immediate needs of our businesses to help them survive; to support, guide, and advocate to help them revive; and to develop a plan that will allow our community to thrive in a post-COVID-19 future.
YELLOWSTONE COUNTY ECONOMIC RESPONSE AND RECOVERY TEAM
Yellowstone County’s Economic Response and Recovery Team was formed at the beginning of this crisis with a mission to coordinate responses to the immediate needs of our business community, identify and fill gaps in services and resources, guide the development of the community’s near-term economic recovery plan, and help define objectives for a comprehensive economic development strategy designed to build the foundation for our future community and economic development growth. This team consists of business owners, County and City elected leadership, health care experts, and community and economic developers.
Beginning in March with Governor Bullock’s Stay-at-Home order, the state has acted under strategic public health measures which brought early success against the pandemic: COVID-19 peaked early at a relatively low number, our hospitals were not overburdened, and our state’s death toll from this pandemic has been among the lowest in the nation.
These steps to protect public health have taken a drastic toll on our economy. Our inability to gather, shop, and travel during the Stay-At- Home order caused a severe direct financial hit to many of our businesses, with ripple effects throughout the economy. Economic output dropped sharply. Unemployment claims soared to record levels, reaching a peak of 11,598 in mid-April. In a survey conducted in late-April, 92% of businesses reported somewhat or extremely negative impacts to their business from COVID-19. Programs instituted under the Federal CARES Act—the Paycheck Protection Program, the Economic Injury Disaster Loans, and the various grants and loans offered through Montana’s Coronavirus Relief Funds—have helped many businesses retain their workers and alleviate some of their financial stress.
The Phased reopening has resulted in additional economic activity, but much uncertainty remains. Businesses are searching for better solutions and models to help them survive as they adapt to new precautions, limitations, and unexpected expenses.
CHANGE IN SMALL BUSINESS REVENUE *
In Yellowstone County, as of August 1, 2020, total small business revenue decreased by 10.3% compared to January 2020.
The resurgence of COVID-19 cases over the summer is cause for concern. With reopening allowing the return to many of the activities we avoided during the early stages of the pandemic, an increase in cases is expected. However, the dramatic rise in cases reminds us that this virus is highly contagious, and we must take necessary precautions to avoid overwhelming our healthcare system and reversing the tentative steps our businesses have taken toward recovery. Regressing in our phased reopening would have further devastating effects on the local economy.
One important additional precaution is the use of masks or face coverings to stem the spread of the virus. Our team launched the Masks Mean Business campaign to communicate the message that mask usage is vital to maintaining and improving both the physical and the economic health of our community. When Governor Bullock subsequently issued the mask mandate on July 15, our message and signs prominently expressed the need to adopt the new measure not only for public health benefits, but also to save the businesses we love, the jobs we depend on, and the cultural and recreational institutions that make Yellowstone County a special place.
To date we have helped to distribute over 50,000 masks for free to area businesses thanks to numerous community partners.
This Yellowstone County Economic Response & Recovery Strategy will be a guiding document developed by the Economic Response and Recovery Team. Because the continuing public health crisis is fluid and evolving with many unknowns, this plan must remain flexible, ready to adapt to changing circumstances and timelines. The plan is developed in three parts, based on the primary purpose and the time frame.
STAGE ONE: Response and Stabilization
MARCH – SEPTEMBER 2020
▶ Help businesses overcome the immediate challenges
▶ Focus on safely and effectively reopening our economy
▶ Re-activate our workforce
▶ Assist businesses as they learn and adapt
▶ Restore consumer confidence and reengage customers
The focus of this stage has been to identify and help address the immediate and short-term challenges created by the onset of COVID-19. Our goal was to ensure that area businesses have the resources, information, and support they need to weather this disruption. As we moved toward reopening parts of our shuttered economy in late-April, our team worked in partnership with our businesses and the public health department to facilitate a safe and effective restart of our local economy.
STAGE TWO: Business Recovery
JULY 2020 – APRIL 2021
▶ Sustain response and stabilization momentum
▶ Advocate for businesses and restore consumer confidence
▶ Support businesses’ needs to adapt, grow, and build resiliency
As we transition from response to recovery, there will be an ongoing need to communicate with and assist businesses—to identify new and evolving challenges; to provide resources to support growth, diversification, and resilience; to advocate for their needs; and to help them reengage their customers and regain their market. Public health and economic health are tightly intertwined, so we must monitor and protect both.
STAGE THREE: Building Economic & Community Resiliency
OCTOBER 2020 – APRIL 2023
▶ Understand the economic impacts and business trends that have affected our community and region
▶ Consider new opportunities and strategies to build a strong, resilient, and vibrant regional economy
▶ Position Yellowstone County for the future
Our purpose in this stage will be to determine a common vision that the leaders, businesses, organizations, and residents of Yellowstone County can believe in and support. We will work together to create a thoughtful strategy to address the challenges posed by COVID-19 and to discover and consider new opportunities to develop a stronger, more resilient, regional economy.
A comprehensive plan for recovery must address diversity and inclusion. We must find ways to include all cultures, education levels, and socioeconomic backgrounds in our recovery. Our goal is to create economic prosperity for all, to build a stronger foundation that will support a more resilient economy. To attain this goal, we need to embed the ideas of fairness, equity, and access into every aspect of our effort. We must account for and address the additional challenges faced by disadvantaged groups and ensure they have access to the resources and assistance needed to overcome them.
“MOVE TO WHERE THE PUCK WILL BE.”—WAYNE GRETZKY
Wayne Gretzky is considered the greatest hockey player ever. A lot of his success can be attributed to years of practice and competition to hone his skills. But some must be ascribed to his attitude, his mindset. Gretzky did not dwell on the past or react to the present. He anticipated the future. He moved to where the puck would be. We must do the same.
Optimists proclaim that bigger challenges hold greater opportunities, and that will be the case with this challenge. Realizing these opportunities will take a concerted effort by all sectors—businesses, healthcare, local government, education, arts and cultural organizations, non-profits, and individual citizens—to restore our economy and rebuild our community. Our efforts will need the support, assistance, and cooperation of all levels of government and society. It is essential that the people and organizations of Yellowstone County proactively address, plan, and create the future we wish to see.
The Yellowstone County Economic Response and Recovery Team is supported by a technical support group in the following disciplines:
STRATEGIC RESTART PARTNERSHIP
John Brewer – Billings Chamber of Commerce
Lilly Corning – Corning Companies
ECONOMIC IMPACT ANALYSIS
Allison Corbyn – Big Sky Economic Development
Andy Zoeller – City of Billings
Wyeth Friday – City of Billings
Nick Altonaga – City of Laurel
Daniel Brooks – Billings Chamber
Melanie Schwarz – Big Sky Economic Development
Kelly McCandless – Billings Chamber
Jeanna Lervick– Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office
Thom McLean – Big Sky Economic Development
SEPTEMBER 2020 – NOVEMBER 2020 | LiNK BUSINESS QUARTERLY 23