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Small businesses in town look for relief and a 'light at the end of the tunnel' during coronavirus crisis

PMG PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - Vanguard Brewing owner Don Anderson prepares a beer order to be delivered to a customer.

Investing a few thousand dollars more than usual, Wanker's Corner Saloon & Cafe in Wilsonville hoped to provide all the fixings for this year's St. Patrick Day feast.

But instead of spending the March 17 holiday watching customers wolf down helpings of corned beef and cabbage and consume Irish beer and whiskey, owner Cooper Maixner crunched numbers — deciphering whether his business could afford to stay open and keep two managers employed with takeout and delivery orders its only source of revenue. And that was after Maixner already let go about 30 employees.

"It's tough right now. I wish we could afford to keep everyone employed for four weeks with cleaning projects and maintenance projects," Maixner said. "The fact of the matter is as a small business in a high rent area, I don't see how that's possible for us."

The next day, Wanker's closed indefinitely.

Particularly in the restaurant and bar industry but also in other sectors, the spread of the novel coronavirus and measures to promote social distancing have drastically impacted local businesses.

Amid the chaos, the Spokesman chatted with owners and other leaders to see how they are handling the massive disruptions.

Restaurants and bars

On Monday, Gov. Kate Brown declared that restaurants and bars would no longer be able to serve food and drinks anywhere on their premises.

Don Anderson, the owner of Vanguard Brewing Company in Wilsonville, began delivery service the day of that announcement and then planned to open a takeout window March 18.

He hopes the services will provide some revenue but thought the business could not sustain itself for longer than two months under such restrictions. Anderson already let go of his eight employees.

"This shutdown is for the greater good and that's a good thing but those of us with small businesses are going to struggle so support local where you can," Anderson said.

Hank Jarboe, the owner of Boston's Pub & Grill in Town Center, also had to lay off many employees and was skeptical that the bar could accrue enough revenue from takeout and delivery services to make remaining open worthwhile.

"If you're only making $200-$300 in to-go orders (a day) that's not going to be effective," he said.

Jarboe also thought that a federal payroll tax reprieve wouldn't help them much either.

"A friend was saying that you have to smile and keep your chin up," Jarboe said. "That's pretty hard to keep your chin up and smile when you don't have any customers and you're used to having a full bar."

But for other kinds of restaurants, the hit might not be quite as devastating. Nancy Faubel, the owner of Corner Coffee Shoppe and the next door sourdough bread bakery in Town Center, continues to sell takeout orders of coffee, bread, bagels and other goods. The store also has outdoor seating, which makes the dining experience not totally abnormal. Faubel also hopes to begin selling her sourdough bread on Amazon.com soon and said bread sales were up significantly at the store this week.

However, Faubel had to cut staff hours after seeing a reduction in customers, especially those who come early to sit and drink coffee, and said a forced closure would be catastrophic.

"Under the current situation we'll be able to give all of our employees some hours and keep the doors open the way it is," she said. "We're going to keep the doors open unless we're forced to close."

Other services

Cornerstone Calisthenics Gym co-owner Bret Hamilton recently told customers of the sobering reality — if they decide not to pay for remote training sessions, the gym in Wilsonville could soon shutter.

Thankfully, Hamilton said all of their regular customers have decided to continue to receive training via live video sessions. Hamilton said sessions are a bit different because customers don't have some of the usual equipment in their home but that calisthenics workouts include mostly body weight exercises anyway.

Hamilton also sees this as an opportunity for new customers who are no longer going to the gym to try out their services.

"We will largely be unaffected thankfully. With that said, that could change depending on how things pan out," Hamilton said.

Though some employees and customers were self-quarantining, things had continued relatively normally at Joy of Life Chiropractic as of Monday, according to owner Laura Lajoie Bishop.

Lajoie Bishop said the business had taken precautions like extra cleaning and only letting one employee use the sign-in iPad to prevent the spread of the virus. They also have tried to limit the amount of people in the office to less than 10 at all times.

Despite the fact that her profession requires physical contact, she said customers haven't been deterred.

"I've talked to other chiropractors and across the board they're seeing 90% of people coming in still," Lajoie Bishop said. "I think part of it is because most patients realize you live your life through the nervous system and if the nervous system is functioning better and you're drinking water, getting sunshine and active your body is going to be more resilient."

Retail

Mark Bigej, the owner of Al's Garden & Home in Wilsonville and Sherwood, said the shops typically collect over 50% of revenue during the spring months — when gardeners need supplies for the season.

So the coronavirus couldn't have metastasized at a worse time.

But like other businesses, necessity breeds adaptation. And Bigej said the business is going to bring gardening products to people via a delivery service.

"We're still trying to figure out what the overall impact will be. I'm sure business will be down but think people will still want to do projects at home because they will be stuck at home," he said.

Bigej said the business likely will need to acquire vans and retrain workers to become delivery drivers for this to work effectively.

Bigej also expects some customers to continue to stop by the shop in person.

"We're out in the open air. We have a very large footprint compared to other retail stores so it's easy to maintain social distancing while shopping," Bigej said.

Bigej hadn't had to let go any employees yet but said he might be forced to depending on how long the virus impacts last.

"We're going to do everything we can to keep them working and receiving a paycheck. Outside factors will control that," he said.

Lodging

According to Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association President Jason Brandt, hotels have seen a sharp decline in customers since the coronavirus crisis began.

"It shows the impact coronavirus is having on the entire global economy. It's not a challenge specific to Oregon. It's specific to the whole planet," he said.

But hotels aren't the only form of lodging adversely affected.

Wilsonville City Councilor Charlotte Lehan relies on income from the three bedroom house she rents out on her property in Wilsonville. While she says the place is typically booked throughout nearly the entire spring and summer, she has had a few recent cancelations and expects a few families coming from the east coast and Europe and those coming for potentially postponed upcoming weddings to cancel as well.

"If nobody comes, it's a significant impact, yes," Lehan said.

However, she did get business from a local family who had to leave their home due to water damage and surmises changing the structure of the operation could help.

"If we couldn't have it as a short-term rental we would have to have it as a longer-term rental," Lehan said. "We can't have it just sit here empty."

Activity centers

Bullwinkle's Wilsonville decided to close its operation at least for the next four weeks following Brown's declaration.

General Manager Darren Harmon said the closure won't put the company, which also has centers in Washington, out of business but that it would be a significant blow if it lasts beyond April.

"The worst part is the employees, not being able to pay them during this time frame is going to be hard. Hopefully they can hang on long enough to come back," Harmon said.

Wilsonville Lanes also announced that it would close temporarily.

Response

The experiences of Boston's, Wanker's and Vanguard is common, according to Brandt.

And he called upon state and federal governments to take drastic measures to help small businesses through the crisis.

Some measures he recommends include nullifying unemployment requirements so that recently laid off people have to prove they're looking for a job and wait a week in order to receive benefits, payroll and corporate tax relief and for counties to declare a disaster so that the Small Business Administration can provide emergency loans to businesses.

"The expediency and ability to execute on the part of our government is paramount," Brandt said. "Our industry needs relief now. We have to determine action steps necessary to deliver for people who need us most now."

Locally, city of Wilsonville Economic Development Manager Jordan Vance and Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce CEO Kevin Ferrasci O'Malley are working to inform businesses about what options they have for relief. Some of those options include the SBA loans Brandt mentioned, and the state's Work Share program, where an employer reduces worker hours and unemployment insurance benefits are then paid to supplement reduced wages.

Vance also said he's heard other local jurisdictions discuss providing a stimulus program and didn't rule out the Wilsonville government taking that measure, though he would expect the vast majority of funding to come from the federal level.

For now, the city and chamber are conducting a survey to ask businesses how they are being impacted and what response would be beneficial.

"It's all very new. It's unchartered territory for all of us," Vance said. "It seems to be impacting all businesses. No one is really immuned from this. We're trying to understand what we can do on the public side to help mitigate those."

Ferrasci O'Malley said he has talked to business owners who hoped that the federal government didn't repeat 2008 financial crisis decisions, when the financial and auto industries received massive stimulus while small businesses did not.

"Small businesses can't survive this kind of trauma for a long period of time," he said.

The chamber is also providing gift cards to people that can go toward local businesses of their choosing.

And Brandt also recommended that people wanting to support small businesses purchase gift cards for future use and make sure the cards support the businesses immediately instead of going to them once the card is used.

"(The gift card) will provide immediate cash flow to keep employees employed," Brandt said.

Despite the devastating disruption, Brandt wants business leaders, employees and the general public to try to maintain positivity.

"After we're through this short term crisis we know there will be light at the end of the tunnel," he said.


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