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May 26, 2020

In addition to links to regional and state sources for economic assistance to businesses on the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce website, the Small Business Administration also has the latest online information involving COVID-19 help coming from the federal government. River News screencap.
In addition to links to regional and state sources for economic assistance to businesses on the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce website, the Small Business Administration also has the latest online information involving COVID-19 help coming from the federal government. River News screencap.
4/3/2020 7:28:00 AM
Officials: Tourism industry will take a hit
The longer COVID-19 pandemic goes on, the harder the economic blow
Jamie Taylor
River News Reporter

There is no mistaking that the COVID-19 pandemic, and the restrictions put in place to curb its spread, have had an impact on every business in the Northwoods. And that drain on the local economy will only grow worse the longer the public health crisis continues, according to local economic development officials.

Lauren Sackett, executive director of the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has been reaching out to the local business community for feedback on the impact of the pandemic and related restrictions.

"We did a recent survey of our membership, so we are hearing that this is definitely impacting our local businesses, particularly our small businesses that have been determined to be non-essential and are supposed to be closed," Sackett said in an interview last week. "And we do have a lot of owners who are making sure their employees are being taken care of, making sure that their business is being taken care of. Depending on how long this lasts, are they going to be reopening? It's really a scary but interesting thought that some of these small businesses may not be able to reopen, depending on how long this lasts."

This time of year is considered "shoulder season" for hotels and resorts, when bookings are normally down. This means the full hit to the area economy won't be felt for another month.

"I have seen a couple studies from the Department of Tourism that 58 percent, I believe it is, of people are reevaluating their travel plans; either pushing them back, maybe staying closer to home, looking at different options," Sackett said. "So this could definitely be a hit on tourism, and the region, as well."

Tourism and the timber industry are the two biggest economic horses pulling the Northwoods economic wagon. And nobody knows that better than Brittany Beyer, executive director of Grow North Regional Economic Development Corporation.

Grow North works with county economic development organizations in Forest, Florence, Marinette, Lincoln, Langlade, Oconto, Oneida, and Vilas counties to award grants to foster workforce development and broadband expansion while not losing focus on forestry and wood products industries.

"Right now, we're at the beginning of whatever our local economies are feeling," Beyer said in an interview last week. "The first hits are restaurants, food industry but also a lot of the retail. And since the stay- at-home order just happened, we're at the very beginning of understanding how this is going to effect us and the economy. And I think all of the economic development leadership understand that and are trying our best to figure out how to get the resources to the individuals and businesses as fast as possible."

With the social distancing recommendations being extended through the month of April, the shutdown could wipe out part of the tourist season, possibly through May.

"That just calls to the need to diversify what types of businesses are doing work in our communities," Beyer said. "Tourism is definitely a large part of the economic engine up here, but there is absolutely room to make some changes for the better. Let's not take this moment sitting down, let's figure out how to add additional economic supports from outside the Northwoods."

She said forestry and forestry-related products are still one of the biggest drivers of the economy in the eight counties and three tribal governments she works with.

"But looking at what's missing and how the region wants to move forward is definitely something that we need to have conversations about," Beyer said. "If businesses are looking for information about the loans and grants that are coming down the pike, the SBDC (Small Business Development Center) has a really good COVID-19 resource page that is pulling multiple sources together and there are going to be really great statewide collaborative efforts coming forth in the next couple days. So people should really be talking to their Chambers, their economic development professionals, If they have a banker that they work with, they should have those conversations."

There are resources also coming from the federal government, fueled by the $2 trillion COVID-19 bill signed last weekend, but it will take some time for those resources to make an impact locally.

"So what we have is a snapshot right now, and there are more emerging resources that are happening," Beyer said. "We've had really high level conversations on how we can work on this together. Everyone is really trying to do their best to figure this out when this is completely unprecedented."

Sackett said Rhinelander is different from other "destinations" in the Northwoods.

"I would say that Rhinelander itself is a little bit more unique," Sackett said. "We do have a lot of the wood industry and the tourism industry, but we do have a pretty wide array of business types already. But it is something that needs to be looked at because the business climate as a whole is going to be making some adjustments over the next several months in terms of how they do business. Some businesses have started doing some things online when they never did that before. So I think you will see a shift in how businesses are operating."

With the restrictions expected to extend at least to the end of April, one might ask if the Chamber is considered essential?

"I consider the Chamber to be very essential, especially at a time like this," Sackett said. "But, according to the documents they put out, we are not considered to be essential. Our office is closed for the time being, but we have signs out. If you need immediate assistance, all of our staff is working remotely, so you can email us or message us on Facebook. We are occasionally stopping by the office to check voicemail and things like that. We're still operating, we're just not doing it in our facility right now."

"Like any other business, we're going to be constantly evaluating how we're going to be continuing, but we're trying our hardest to have all three of us work during the duration of this," Sackett added. "There have been so many changes in the past week-and-a-half that it is hard to keep up sometimes. So we are constantly reevaluating what we're doing."

The chamber is also committed to keeping the community and local business owners informed of the resources available, she added.

"The Chamber, along with several other organizations, have put together a community resources page on our website, and it's fairly up to date," Sackett said. "It gives you a business guide and employment information and other community resources. And there is also a list of local business changes and updates. We've been keeping an eye out on what restaurants and shops are doing, making notes on whether or not they are closed or carryout, whatever that might be. We try to keep that as up to date as possible for the community to utilize."

Both Sackett and Beyer agreed that businesses with the most flexibility are most likely to survive what is coming.

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at jamie@rivernews

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