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Helping Businesses Navigate the Pandemic

​As the coronavirus pandemic entered South Carolina, anxiety swept through businesses facing shutdowns, layoffs and revenue losses. At the same time, cities and towns stepped up to help with answers to questions and pathways to financial support.

Some cities were able to offer loan programs, redirecting money budgeted initially for other projects. Others set up drive-thru farmers markets, and some have worked as conduits between business owners and state and federal programs.

Tim O’Briant, right, with Sabina Craig, City of Aiken
Tim O'Briant, right, Aiken's economic development director, reviews loan applications with Sabina Craig, development project manager. Photo: Shiann Sivell, Aiken Standard.

At the beginning of the economic shutdown, Tim O'Briant, Aiken's economic development director, said social distancing "was voluntary except for restaurants, but we anticipated that would expand. We wanted to act quickly."

Aiken City Council passed an emergency ordinance on March 23 to create a $1 million loan program to provide relief for local merchants. The City of Aiken joined with local community development organizations including the Aiken Corporation, the local Security Federal Bank and the Aiken Chamber of Commerce to offer loan guarantees to help local merchants.

"We were able to get this rolled out before the payroll protection program was passed by Congress and before they had initial Small Business Administration loans," O'Briant said. "People were nervous about what to do with employees, about whether they should close their doors."

The program offered loans to brick-and-mortar small businesses located within the city limits that had 25 or fewer full-time equivalent workers. Those with a business license and an ability to meet some creditworthiness and underwriting standards were able to borrow up to $10,000, with payments deferred for either six months or a year. The loans offered a two-year payback with 2% interest.

The application asked owners to explain the impact of COVID-19 on their business and give the same documentation required by the SBA. Of the 50 applications received by late April, 45 were approved.

The $500,000 share of the funding provided by the city came from a master economic development plan already in the works. The original, prepandemic plan aimed to spur residential and business expansion.

O'Briant spoke with more than 300 representatives from local businesses — some who needed the loans and some who had questions about the emerging economic climate.

"We wanted to be a resource that could counsel businesses financially and emotionally," he said. "We posted a link on our website, and we set hours where we had counselors available. You could go in and self-select your time," he said. "We did that for two and a half weeks, nonstop. We were making sure we were the experts locally, although the city has no connection to the SBA, but we could guide people through our knowledge. I've very proud of the help we were able to offer, and we've gotten a wonderful reaction from the business community."

City of Camden
Camden is one South Carolina city where municipal staff has helped small businesses understand assistance opportunities and other resources during the pandemic. Photo: City of Camden.

City staff in Camden also helped small business owners understand the available funding and other assistance they may be able to access during the pandemic. Emails and direct mail were sent to business owners to inform them about SBA disaster loans and the process for applying for help. Main Street program manager Katharine Spadacenta and city staff made themselves available to small business owners who had questions or needed help applying for SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans and the Kershaw County Small Business Stabilization grants administered by Kershaw County.

"We also walked business owners through the application over the phone, by video chat or Zoom meeting and even in person. Some of our business owners do not have access to computers or the internet, or were not familiar enough with the technology to complete the EIDL application, and so staff also made ourselves and the necessary technology available to business owners who needed that access in order to apply for an EIDL," she said.

The Downtown Camden marketing budget, which was intended to promote spring events and tourism, shifted to instead support a campaign that promotes ways for people to support small businesses and help them keep their doors open. The campaign suggested alternatives to in-person support, including online and over-the-phone shopping, takeout or delivery from restaurants, maintaining memberships at businesses and purchasing gift cards to be used in the future.

"The majority of our eating establishments went straight to curbside pickup and local delivery when their dining rooms were closed down by the governor's executive order," Spadacenta said. "Some of our lunch locations also began preparing family-style 'heat and eat' meals for people to take home. Our retail boutiques took their inventory to social media, offering Facebook Live sales and FaceTime or video chat tours of their shops. Many offered front-porch delivery to Camden residents. Our bookstore recorded a 'story time' with a local author who was scheduled to have an in-store event, and published it to Facebook. And, our locally owned athletic club began offering its classes online, with instructors posting videos on YouTube and going live on Facebook."

Kershaw County Farmers Market

Kershaw County Farmers Market
The Kershaw County Farmers Market began providing social distancing precautions to allow residents to continue accessing fresh produce and other essential products. Photo: City of Camden.

Like many cities, Camden waived late fees for utility bills and worked one-on-one with residents and business owners who are losing income because of hardships related to COVID-19. The city also worked to get fresh food to residents through the Kershaw County Farmers Market, a nonprofit, weekly market in downtown Camden. The market asked the city for guidance and approval to operate an "Essential Market" so residents could access fresh, locally grown produce, meats, other food items, and soaps and other hygiene products. In the first few weeks, it offered a drive-thru lane for those who didn't feel comfortable getting out of their cars.

Many South Carolina municipalities have pulled together directories of resources available to their small businesses and residents and shared those through websites. In Abbeville, the city put together a comprehensive list of federal resources, along with other tools available to help businesses and residents.

"The main thing we try to do with all resources and information out there is to be a resource conduit," said Mike Clary, Abbeville's community development director. "We created this repository of different information, whether federal, state or local, where businesses and residents can go to that one site. Everything from SBA loans, if local banks are offering mortgage deferments, things like that."

Abbeville has also used its social media channels to communicate with residents, offering details on restaurant hours for takeout service and other updates on retail shops.

Other cities around the state have put together resource pages to offer technical assistance, alerting small businesses and residents to help available from state and federal channels. York, Isle of Palms, Liberty, Florence and other municipalities have cultivated resource pages and technical assistance.

"We always try to offer information to businesses and residents, but certainly the pandemic has changed how everyone operates to a degree," Clary said. "The suddenness of all this made us reconsider how we put out that information."