Months into the pandemic, what’s the outlook for Chatham businesses?

Posted 6/26/20

As North Carolina moves through the phases of its reopening plan, business leaders in Chatham County are trying to strike a balance between quelling public anxiety in respect to the pandemic, and …

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Months into the pandemic, what’s the outlook for Chatham businesses?

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As North Carolina moves through the phases of its reopening plan, business leaders in Chatham County are trying to strike a balance between quelling public anxiety in respect to the pandemic, and supporting the desire of local businesses to bring in revenue.

Alyssa Byrd, the president of the Chatham Economic Development Corporation, remembers the last time leaders from the county were able to congregate in person. It was Opportunity Chatham, a conference in March where business leaders discussed the county’s economic outlook.

“Minutes after that event ended, that was the day that Chatham County’s first case was announced,” Byrd said.

The first death in Chatham County from COVID-19 was reported on April 14, and now there are more than 750 confirmed cases and 37 deaths reported in the county.

Byrd said in normal times, a sizable portion of her office’s work involves developing industrial land in the county. She said in Chatham County, around 90 percent of the tax base comes from residential property tax revenue, and since residential taxes are associated with more costs — like water and schools — than taxes on large businesses, bringing in industrial clients is a key goal for the county.

International travel restrictions and anxiety about public health, however, have stifled the recruitment of new large businesses, she said.

“We’re seeing requests for information, but we’re just not seeing a lot of the visits and the moving forward with projects,” she said. “Most of the projects that we have seen for our area are requesting an existing building. And we just have very limited available existing building space.”

So instead, the EDC is bolstering existing businesses, Byrd said, and making sure they have what they need to make it through this period of diminished economic activity.

The EDC has started a program where it will provide 100 percent of the collateral on a business loan up to $10,000.

“I really think that our economic health is going to depend on actual health indicators, so if people don’t feel safe going out and engaging in economic commerce activities, then they’re not going to,” Byrd said.

Byrd said that now, as priorities for the county have shifted to adjust for the impact of the pandemic, the county is focusing on strengthening public health measures in tandem with the goals of the Department of Health and Human Services.

“I feel that we all kind of miss an opportunity with providing support to those mid-sized businesses, so that’s something I want to make sure that we’re expanding our reach to provide support,” she said. “In terms of support to businesses, that hasn’t been there, but our request has been for PPE and cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer and what not, to make those available to employers.”

She said the county wants to provide businesses the tools needed to operate safely during the pandemic.

“The reality is we have a county that has a large senior population,” she said. “And we have a lot of vulnerabilities in our community, and if we want a real economic recovery, we have to be mindful of how we lead and implement policies to keep people safe.”

Greg Lewis owns Pittsboro Roadhouse and 39westcatering in Pittsboro. He said that among business owners, especially those in the service industry, there is a great deal of concern about what will happen in the fall and next year.

He caters weddings and large events, but all the scheduled ones have been postponed for months, and no one can say for certain that a resurgence of the virus won’t disrupt events that have been pushed back to this fall or next spring.

“At this point, whether it materializes or not, it doesn’t matter, because it’s already on everybody’s mind,” Lewis said. “People already are worried. That concern is already there for this fall.”

To help the community cope, he was providing 150 family meals per day to locals that were out of work because of the pandemic. Community members helped him stay afloat by making donations and buying gift cards, but still — because of bleak turnout — he has been forced to make a decision to keep his restaurant open only on Fridays and Saturdays.

“I know restaurants that are serving 10 people a night for dinner during the week, or 20 people a night,” he said. “That’s not a profitable model.”

Lewis said it would be a major boost to the service industry if businesses were allowed to sell liquor to-go at restaurants. Cindy Poindexter, the president and CEO of the Chatham Chamber of Commerce, said in an email: “It has been mentioned that there is no clarity as to why restaurants and the ABC store can sell alcohol, but bars cannot reopen.”

Poindexter said some businesses “prefer to remain closed for now to keep employees and the community safe,” whereas others are eager to safely reopen.

“It hasn’t been feasible for some smaller restaurants to open at 50% capacity due to lack of space,” she said.

Poindexter said the abundance of “unknowns” has caused uncertainty in plenty of businesses, creating tough decisions like whether or not to pay for office space or continue working remotely. But she said that individuals in the community have been creative in their ways of supporting one another.

“There are plenty of strong and resilient business leaders and residents who have realized that we have no choice but to adjust and make the best of a bad set of circumstances,” she said.

In addition to stresses brought on by the pandemic, Lewis said the continued presence of Confederate protestors in Pittsboro has dampened the area’s economic health.

“We have the right to conduct business,” he said. “We keep hearing that the Confederates have the right to be out there protesting. Well, we have the right to conduct business, and for our customers to feel safe, and right now they don’t feel safe coming to Pittsboro.”

Last Thursday, Pittsboro police issued an arrest warrant for an individual accused of assault in downtown Pittsboro. Tommy Parnell of Surry County allegedly used hockey sticks as a weapon in a protest against the removal of the Confederate monument, which was taken down last fall.

Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to make a decision this week regarding the next steps in N.C.’s transition toward a reopening. (The state is currently in Phase 2.) Byrd, the EDC president, said she thinks that federal support programs are working as intended, and her organization will continue to prioritize public health as N.C. moves forward.

“The virus does not know county lines and boundaries,” she said. “When we think about economic recovery, the recovery of Raleigh is important for Durham and it’s important for Chapel Hill, and that’s important for Chatham County. We’re not just doing it on our own.”

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