Chamber of Commerce braces for ‘uncharted’ business territory

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CLAY COUNTY – The Chamber of Commerce is all hands on-deck with local businesses and business owners try to navigate the waters of the coronavirus pandemic.

Businesses around the county have either closed indefinitely or lessened their interaction with customers in order to combat the spread of the coronavirus as a result to government orders. Businesses are losing money as a result leaving their future up for question.

It’s about questions and answers right now for the Clay County Chamber of Commerce.

“Nothing’s at the point where anybody completely understands what’s going on business-wise to say it’s A, B, C or D,” Chamber president Wendell Chindra said. “We know what the intentions of financial help out there is but we’re all still trying to figure it out. It’s a lot of questions and answers right now.”

The chamber, on county manager Howard Wanamaker’s guidance, has opened its services to all business owners – not just chamber members.

Chindra said on a local level, businesses can get help from local loan lenders who have received federal money with the intent to use it to help local businesses. He said the process is currently overloaded and slower than normal as a result. It’s not that lenders don’t want to lend the money but rather, they don’t have all of the tools they need yet, he said.

A Bridge loan is available from the state level. This is a 12-month loan with no payments for 12 months. At the end of the 12 months, the loan must be paid off or those with the loan face as 12% note attachment, Chindra said.

“Most of our small businesses do not qualify for that to be the case because to get approved you really need to be established and have all of your books in order,” Chindra said.

There is a lot of information pouring in from every direction, according to Chindra, and the chamber’s focus right now is condensing that information into understandable bites for local business owners. The chamber recently started hosting webinars to upwards of 75 people where those participating can ask questions, get answers, and learn from chamber staff what things owners can do to navigate the current times.

He said the general consensus among business owners is the obvious consensus: things are tough.

“Businesses thrive in continuity,” Chindra said. “We’ve had a very strong economy for 10 years, an economy with continuity and prosperity. Adding the element of the coronavirus and what it’s done, we’re facing the opposite of those 10 years now. It’s crazy and frankly, it’s wreaking havoc.”

Chindra said it’s hard to predict the fallout of the situation, especially because it’s unknown when the situation is going to end and how consumers will behave on the other side of this.

Even if businesses are able to return to some level of normalcy again, Chindra wonders if the clientele from before will be willing to return. If at-risk people are allowed to venture back out to restaurants and other places, it’s unsure if they’ll even do so, he said.

“We’re worried about mom and pop places because if they still have to pay rent, we’re not sure they’ll be able to,” Chindra said. “Car loans and things like mortgages are being deferred but we need to appeal to landlords in hopes that they’ll defer rent payments for these businesses that can’t afford rent right now.”

Chindra spoke with local realtor Wendell Davis about the situation and said Davis said something that Chindra believes is very indicative.

“I asked him earlier in the week how things were going and he said, ‘Ask me again on April 15,’” Chindra said. “I said, ‘why,’ and he said, ‘We’ll know by then if people can pay rent.’ It’s due on the first of the month but people can wait until the 15.”

Chindra said he wouldn’t call what Clay County and the greater nation is enduring a recession that requires at least six months of specific decline or lack of growth, but he said we’re in uncharted territory.

“Look at the mall,” Chindra said. “Use that for scale. That’s 3,000 previously employed people now unemployed. Nobody can afford those salaries and wages. I think we could see that on a grander scale.”

When the virus threat is over, Chindra said it’s important for people to recognize the local businesses and business partners that supported Clay County during these times.

“If you see a local credit union doing their part to help small businesses, remember that,” Chindra said. “If you see local businesses helping others, remember that and give them your business if you can.

“This is the time when we need to support the businesses who support us locally.”

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