Guest Blog: Building Small Business Support in Alamance County

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F. Paul Koonts

Written By: F. Paul Koonts
Oertel, Koonts & Oertel, PLLC

A crisis sometimes causes you to look back because the future seems so uncertain. As we confront the current economic and health crisis of Covid-19, I am struck both by the resilience of our small businesses and their vulnerability.

Since at least 2016, much of my work with the Alamance Chamber has been focused on improving the ecosystem that supports small businesses and entrepreneurs in our community. We commissioned a study of our current ecosystem and studied incubators and organizations that support small businesses in other communities. We have investigated obtaining space to house an incubator in order to provide services to small business owners throughout the county. Every community has its own strengths and challenges including Alamance County. In a strong economy with low unemployment with many successful businesses the idea of providing extra support to a thriving economy is important but simply has less urgency.

Through this process what we have learned is that most successful incubators require a significant investment to get started and returns on investment take time. Patient capital is a phrase I have heard many times. The failure rate for small businesses is high and transformative start ups are few and far between even at well-funded incubators.  I believe there is incredible value in helping local small business survive and thrive. Your local restaurant, coffee shop, art gallery, music stores help create a sense of place, a sense of community, that defies the limitations of a balance sheet. As Covid-19 has taught us, we all really NEED those human connections and sense of community. We need to continue to find tangible and sustainable ways to support and develop our small business owners and entrepreneurs. It is in times of crisis that we need to be our best and our small business owners and entrepreneurs are counting on us to step up.

Don’t let anybody kid you, on the best days running a small business is lonely and tough. Many small businesses in our community have not seen their best days in a long time. Small business owners have had to look many of their long-time employees in the eye (over masks from a safe distance) and tell them they must file for unemployment. No, they were not sure exactly how you file for unemployment or when they would return to work or how to handle health insurance or loans from 401Ks etc.  Business owners have borrowed money from banks, credit cards, friends and family, and cautiously taken PPP loans with the hope of loan forgiveness. They have renegotiated with landlords and vendors that they would never consider not paying. And those business owners that still survive are the lucky ones. Business owners without ready access to capital, particularly our minority business owners, are suffering disproportionately.

In case you had forgotten, 2020 has reminded us all about the RISK part of the RISK/REWARD calculation every business owner makes with every decision. They make these decisions while at the same time trying to figure out how to pay their own bills, handle school kids now at home, and always keep a positive attitude. There will never be enough time or money or answers and often business owners feel something very personal, they feel very alone. 2020 has reminded us that being a small business owner/entrepreneur can break you down if you don’t have a business community that supports you.

Sometimes it takes a crisis for us to truly begin to address a need that has always been right in front of us. In response to the Covid-19 crisis our larger business community has responded with vigor:

  • The Alamance Chamber has pulled together community resources to be there for our small business leaders throughout this crisis. By hosting free, easy to access Zoom/WebEx calls directly with experts to provide key information on PPP, EIDL, health insurance benefits, that get to the granular detail level and provides answers.
  • Alamance County Government and the Alamance Chamber Economic Development Foundation have devoted $300,000 to a small business loan funds through Self Help Venture Fund and the Alamance Foundation with an emphasis on serving minority and women owned businesses.
  • #Alamance Strong continues to provide an up to date and valuable resource of local and national information for small businesses options on all topics.
  • Local Municipalities are providing microloans and grants to small business.
  • The ACC Small Business Center has gathered CPA, Finance, Marketing and Legal advisors to provide FREE assistance to small business owners.

I am certain there are many more examples of our business community pulling together that I am not aware of, but the point is, small business owners and entrepreneurs do not have to go it alone. There is a business community in Alamance County that is here to support you regardless of your zip code, background, ethnicity, or pronouns.

Our next steps are critical. Yes, we must continue to press forward throughout this pandemic and provide support and assistance. This pandemic has forced us out of our comfort zone and caused us to expand our thinking of what is possible. We need to be prepared to use the energy created by crisis to develop a lasting, well-funded support system that allows our small businesses and entrepreneurs to thrive and help us continue to build a community that provides opportunity to everyone.