It can be said with certainty that for business owners, 2020 has been a year like no other. According to Claire Kemp, Executive Director of the Hamilton Downtown Association, the results of the pandemic have still not been fully tallied. So far, there’s at least one business that she knows of that closed due to COVID-19 and isn’t planning to reopen. Many businesses are hanging by a thread, and the fallout is yet to come.
On the other hand, said Kemp, some businesses’ sales are up by a huge percentage over last year and the Christmas season was strong. “People were mindful of shopping local,” she said. She hasn’t yet heard details from individual businesses, but “word on the street is that people were shopping locally.”
HDA has taken a position of ‘be safe, be respectful, follow the governor’s mandates.’ Banners have been hung in the downtown area stressing Covid-safe practices. HDA held a virtual tree lighting on Facebook. “It was cute and well-received,” said Kemp, with Mayor Dominic Farrenkofp dressed up as Santa.
When the COVID-19 closures happened last spring, the HDA formed a committee which set up a Hamilton Business Relief Fund to provide immediate help before any government help became available. Close to 40 grants were given out, totaling approximately $40,000. In the summer, businesses were able to reopen and there was less of an immediate need. The committee decided to hang on to some of the money for fall and winter. They also shifted focus from helping with expenses like rent and payroll to fostering resiliency by helping with changing business models.
For example, said Kemp, with help from the Fund, O’Hara Commons started an “amazing online shopping platform for local producers” to sell goods in the off season. MineShaft Pasty Company used money from the Fund to expand online sales and wholesale sales and delivery.
There is still some money left to help more businesses. In fact, said Kemp, they were able to raise close to $60,000 in all. Although there were a few large donations, mostly it was small donations from average citizens.
“We do have this very community minded place,” said Kemp. “People care very much about these small businesses who employ our friends and neighbors. It was so encouraging to see how many people contributed to the relief fund.”
Kemp said the overall goal is “to not see businesses close down.”
People interested in contributing to the relief fund, or applying for a grant, can reach out to HDA by calling 360-9124 and leaving a message or emailing hamiltondowntown [email protected]
“Intuitively, and having been a small business owner for 13 years, the long-term effects [of the pandemic] might not be apparent yet,” said Kemp, and “some closures could be coming” as all avenues for help are exhausted.
“Even though we didn’t have our normal events, it was wonderful to be able to shift gears quickly and achieve our mission of helping small businesses,” said Kemp, who serves on the Hamilton City Council. “I still don’t know what the coming year will hold. But, we’re working on a lot of big projects, like Connect93 and wayfinding. So there are still some really exciting things happening.”
Jaime Devlin, owner of A2Z Personnel, an employment agency with offices in Hamilton and Stevensville, said that 2020 has been a year of growth. “We actually had about a two-month really slow period when everything went into lockdown. It created a lot of changes and fears.” Devlin said her team was able to think about, “What can we do to service our clients better? It gave us an opportunity to see what was working and wasn’t working, time to be creative. Then we ended up having a record year. We put more people to work, with a 30% revenue increase on the year, along with a record number of job openings, increasing by about 50%. November and December, typically the slowest months, were equivalent to the August numbers.” A2Z currently serves about 450 employers.
Devlin said that although other places and industries were hit hard, the Bitterroot Valley has been fortunate. Building and construction haven’t slowed down, they’ve increased. Professional service businesses – loan processing, banking, executive administration – are actually growing. They have expanded, with help from federal Payroll Protection Program loans and Montana Covid Relief grants which were very successful in allowing businesses to keep all their employees and also to see significant growth. “The Bitterroot has been very fortunate,” said Devlin.
She also said that people have been forced to be creative, with retail stores going to online sales,” for example. “They had to think outside the box. But, where there’s a will, there’s a way,” she said. “This has forced businesses to get outside of their comfort zone. Huge changes have happened this year, a breeding ground for more change to come. This gave us the opportunity to see that anything is possible. We came together and created a unity and good things happened. Change has to happen. We’ve seen that in 2020.”
Devlin is also on the board of Project 59870, a Stevensville non-profit that created a Business Relief Fund modeled on Hamilton’s. The Stevensville Business Relief Fund gave out 14 grants averaging about $1000 each. That fund also still has money available for businesses that for whatever reason haven’t been able to qualify for government relief funding.
“If you need help, help is available,” said Devlin. “There are people willing to step up to create avenues to help you. That’s what Project 59870 is for. The community as a whole was ready, so many people stepped up to help businesses out. That didn’t go unnoticed. Now when there are questions on social media, Project 59870 is being recommended. A new resource hub has been born.”
Application forms can be found on the Town of Stevensville’s website: townofstevensville.com.
“Stevensville has been in the news for a lot of negativity, but when you get to the nitty gritty of what Stevensville stands for, this is a very positive community,” said Devlin, who also serves on the Stevensville Town Council. “For me personally, it’s been really exciting to see that happen.”
She added, “Town government has been respectful of the governor’s mandate. Whatever your opinion, there are ways to be respectful. There are ways of navigating through that and we can find a happy medium. I think that’s what the town is working toward. A new governor, a new president, will bring new mandates. We’ve never been through a pandemic before, we have to be mindful of that and keep moving forward.”