Now is the Moment. We Can Do It!

There’s probably never been a moment in our region’s history when locally owned businesses needed us all more. The impressive rebound of local business ownership that we experienced over the past decade is under a triple threat from the pandemic, the economic shutdown it caused and now social unrest.

If we want to hold on to a thriving local identity, we need to get behind our local businesses now and reduce the percentage of dollars we spend online or at big-box stores and chain restaurants. Sure, times like these can make us feel helpless. But we are not helpless. There are ways each of us can help to preserve our community’s vitality.

Local businesses have experienced the COVID-19 economic shutdown in wildly different ways. Many are financially devastated. Others saw an exhausting frenzy of activity. Some took advantage of the rare break to upgrade facilities and make service to customers safer.

For all of them, one truth is constant: The more we support them, the better off all of us will be.

Businesses with fewer than 20 people provide 98 percent of American jobs. Saving those jobs is as easy as choosing a store, garage, salon, greenhouse, restaurant or hardware store that’s owned by a neighbor instead of a corporate chain.

If you feel uncomfortable going out because of the virus, you have options.

“Many of our products are on our website and we can deliver all of our products,” says Andrew Benson, president of Benson Stone Co., 1100 11th St., Rockford. “And our store is very large, so social distancing is definitely not a problem. Our staff members wear masks when working with customers.”

The store was only partially shut down, since it carries many products deemed by the state as “essential.” Benson took full advantage of the low-traffic interlude to improve the showroom.

“We created a bunch of new bathroom tile mock-ups, finished a new fireplace display, updated our landscape displays and brought out some new furniture,” he says.

The furniture department fully re-opened in mid-May and is doing a brisk business, as are most departments.
“It looks like people are more than ready to tackle those home improvement projects,” says Benson.
Tim Kinney, general manager of Lincoln Rent-All, makes a similar observation.

“With the food shortages, it seems like everyone has decided to put in a home garden,” he says. “And with people stuck at home, they’re finding there’s a lot they can do to have control over their lives and be productive.”

The 15 rototillers he rents out have been in high demand as have other tools for home and garden improvement projects. Lincoln Rent-All has locations at 6625 E. Riverside Blvd. and 3110 Auburn St.

Leila MacQueen, owner of Circle of Wellness, 3626 E. State St., a chiropractic wellness center, says she was in a state of shock right after her business temporarily shut down due to the pandemic, but she decided to use the quiet time productively. She installed new computer software, purchased a core-strengthening machine and added an infusion center for high-grade supplements. She also opened her rehab center to the public and implemented stricter guidelines for cleanliness for staff.

“As we begin to see the economy reopen, Circle of Wellness is making great efforts to assure patient and staff safety,” she says. “We all move too fast anyway, and sheltering in place was a good time to slow down, think about how to make use of the time, plan for the future and realize what’s really important in life.”

As grocery store shelves emptied, lines formed outside Countryside Meats & Deli, 781 Highgrove Place. Owner Jarrod Bush says he welcomes a return to more normal behavior.

“People are going crazy,” says Bush. “They go into stores and see empty shelves and they freak out. I made a lot of money, but it was at the expense of putting in a lot of long days and weeks that were very stressful. Enough is enough.”

For every store that experienced an uptick in business, many more faced hardship. This is where we come in as a supportive community. It’s all about math.

According to the Small Business Council, for every $100 spent locally, about $70 of local economic activity is returned, compared with $40 when we shop at a big-box or online store. Why? Because local businesses hire each other for services like accounting, web development, professional cleaning, legal help, marketing and more. Chain stores don’t.

Shifting a higher percentage of our shopping and dining dollars to locally owned businesses is a sure way to “pull ourselves up by the bootstraps” – and no one else is going to do that for us. ❚