Planners Are Helping Small Businesses Become Resilient Amidst the Pandemic
When the coronavirus pandemic dramatically halted normal economic activity in March, many knew small business owners and their employees would not come away unscathed. But small businesses are critical to our communities, making up 44 percent of all economic activity in the United States. Thankfully, community planners are stepping up in big ways to find relief for these businesses — the lifeblood of their localities.
In this episode of the podcast, APA public affairs manager Emily Pasi talks with Angela Cleveland, AICP (left), director of community and economic development for the City of Amesbury, Massachusetts, and Matthew Coogan, AICP (below), chief of staff for the City of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Amesbury and Newburyport — the former boasting a thriving restaurant scene, the latter an engine largely fueled by tourism — were each awarded $400,000 in emergency Community Development Block Grant funding via the CARES Act.
Angie and Matt outline the serious need they saw in their communities’ small businesses before the funding was delivered, as well as the ways various city departments came together to lift up struggling enterprises and help them innovate. They provide advice for planners who want to help their communities not just stay solvent, but recover stronger.
[00:00:03.970] Angela Cleveland, AICP: Because of our background and because of the way that we see the landscape and we see our downtowns and we see the way communities should be developed to create a sustainable environment, we could then have that foresight to reprogram public spaces for outdoor dining, look at how we could shift gears for 15-minute parking spots. It's almost bringing to bear some of the great, cool things that planners have come up with that just never became common language.
[00:00:34.240] Emily Pasi: Thanks for joining us for this episode of the APA Podcast. My name is Emily Pasi, public affairs manager at APA. The coronavirus pandemic has strained communities in ways once unimaginable just months ago. Small businesses, which account for 44 percent of all U.S. economic activity, have been hit especially hard. In Massachusetts, community planners are stepping up in big ways to find relief for businesses that are the lifeblood of local communities. Joining me today to discuss how planners are helping local small businesses navigate change by preparing for a more resilient future are Angela Cleveland, AICP, director of community and economic development for the City of Amesbury, Massachusetts, and Matthew Coogan, AICP, chief of staff for the City of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Angie and Matt, thanks for speaking with us today.
[00:01:26.520] Matthew Coogan, AICP: Thank you.
[00:01:27.100] AC: Thank you.
[00:01:28.320] EP: Let's start today by turning back the calendar to March for our listeners. Will you both briefly describe what your respective cities, small business communities looked like before the pandemic hit?
[00:01:40.660] MC: So Newburyport is a coastal community located north of Boston. It's a historic seaport community. It has a downtown, a lot of the buildings trace back to the early 1800s, federal-style community. So it has a great downtown that has lots of local shops and restaurants. We're also, we also have a beach located within the city as well, so our economy is, is, is largely driven at least our downtown economy by tourism. So back in March, we were beginning to ramp up for the summer season, which starts usually around Memorial Day. So that's kind of where we were in March, getting ready for our, for our season. We also have a business park as well that's fairly sizable. And that was humming along, going back, back pre-COVID as well. So mostly a tourism economy, with some local smaller corporations, and like I said, we're located north of Boston, so we do have a lot of commuters that go to Boston, but we're also fairly located to New Hampshire as well and the Portsmouth area. So we do have a lot of commuter traffic as well. We're also on the commuter rail station. So that's kind of where we were back then.
[00:02:56.880] EP: Angie, tell me a little bit about Amesbury.
[00:02:59.770] AC: Yeah, so, interestingly enough, I was, I was only here for barely a month as the community and economic development director before the pandemic hit. So, but having been working for the regional planning agency, I knew Amesbury and got to see some of the liveliness and the, the vibrancy of the city beforehand. We're a smaller city, a little bit smaller than Newburyport. We're directly adjacent to Newburyport, so we are neighbors. And so we do get, we have the benefit of getting some of that sea— that, that seaworthy beach traffic but are on both the Powwow and the Merrimack Rivers. So we're actually at the junction of those two. We're a major city or prior mill city; there is still some smaller manufacturing going on, but for the most part, we have smaller niche stores and restaurants that actually draw a regional, I guess, a regional crowd. You know, people for — we are right on the border of New Hampshire, so we do see a lot of New Hampshire folks coming into the city. And so, and there's that cross-pollination between us and some of the other communities as well. But, you know, there were a couple stores closing here and there, but we're seeing that trend across the Merrimack Valley. We see that happen, you know, turnover due to just changes in customer and consumer, and consumer trends and what their needs are. But our restaurants are really our stake— our stakeholders here. They're really the the drivers, the anchors, in my opinion, of the city. We also have some really interesting collaborative spaces where old mill buildings were turned into smaller workspaces, and they're a variety of mixes. And so those three, there are actually three of them, and they're — actually there's four now, a brand new one just came up, but mostly office spaces in a couple of them. But then we also have some light manufacturing, food processing, a brewery, artists, a local kitchen cooperative. So really a lot of interesting, innovative, you know, entrepreneurs and solopreneurs locating here in Amesbury, working in smaller spaces, of course, that are something that they can go back to. But, you know, these, these have been kind of our keystone projects over the past — and developments — over the past couple of years as they come online.
[00:05:24.080] EP: And of course, you know, from extensive news coverage, we know that small businesses are being hit especially hard by the pandemic and that each community's economy is unique. What effects were you seeing specifically in your small business communities and what kinds of businesses are struggling now, and how severe have those impacts been? How important are those businesses to your city's economy?
[00:05:48.080] MC: So I guess I'll go first. As I mentioned, we are a tourist economy. We have this great downtown, a walkable downtown. So — and part of that reason is because we have great destinations, local museums, we have a local theater, and then our retailers and restaurants and they all pretty much closed when our governor issued the stay-at-home order and only kept essential businesses open. So our retailers pretty much closed up. Our theater is, is still closed because we're not at that phase yet, that the governor's allowed for indoor musical and theatrical performance. Our museum is just getting online now. We have a cut— one of the first custom house buildings ever in the United States. The birth, birthplace of the Coast Guard is one of our communities. So we're just starting — that cultural stuff is still on hold. So our restaurants were closed for inside, inside dining, but they did have curbside pickup that, that kind of kept them alive through, through, when — until when the governor opened up restaurants for outdoor dining in June. We also are allowed to do indoor dining now at a limited capacity. But most people are still deciding to eat outside. But, you know, retailers were closed for a very long time. A lot of our businesses are sole proprietor. We don't really have a lot of chains here. So who you see when you go into the store, it, that's the shop owner. So when we, when, when the, when the stay-at-home order was issued and, you know, a lot of our downtown basically shut down, with the exception of some curbside dining pickup. And we definitely started to get very concerned of what that meant for our, our downtown. We didn't have a lot of vacancy beforehand. We were certainly concerned about vacancy going forward. And, you know, not knowing, still not knowing when we're going to be out of this pandemic, we want to try our best to make sure that all of our retailers and restaurants and even our landlords are supported to get through this, because we know that if we do have vacancies, it's going to probably be a while before someone is going to want to take that risk and, and retenant that, that building. I mean, we did do some — early on we, we did establish an economic recovery task force that consisted of members of the chamber of commerce, our city council and local businesses. We did a survey in May to kind of get a finger on the pulse of what was happening locally. We were, we had 800 businesses respond to that, which is, for a small — we're a community of about eighteen thousand people, so you can imagine that's, that's a good vast majority of our businesses, which meant that they're looking for help. I mean, this is the same time they were applying for, for PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] and all the other programs that were available. So we had good data of, you know, at that point, early in June, of where people were. We did have a couple businesses that felt like they weren't going to make it going into the summer, so we did reach out to them to see what we could do, you know, if anything. But through that survey work, you know, the CDBG [Community Development Block Grant] grant that we were able to get, we had quantitative data to show the state that, hey, if we got this money, we know people. We absolutely know that there are people there that need this help that would qualify for the money. But it also allowed us to look into other things as well, and I guess we could talk about that a little bit more. I mean, streamlining, permitting for outdoor dining to get, to get our, that was, you know — that took a little bit of coordination. There were some loosening from the state level of liquor licensing that allowed us to really open up and do that outdoor dining, which, you know, now that it's been so successful, we're thinking about making it more permanent, you know, going forward in future years. So, but, you know, essentially our, our, our local economy was definitely, was really suffering from March through June. And, you know, we've been able to safely open over the summer. And, you know, fortunately, our, our cases locally have remained fairly low. And we've been aggressive about, you know, making sure people wear masks. And our health department's been out all over the city, making sure that our restaurants and retailers are staying safe. We actually, like some communities in Massachusetts, have established a mask zone. So our whole downtown area, including our waterfront — we have a boardwalk — is a mandatory mask-wearing [zone], whether you're inside or outside. So that's really helped as well. So I guess it was — people were hurting, people were confused, people didn't know exactly how they were going to open and how to do it safely. And, you know, five months later, not that we're experts at it, but we certainly have learned very quickly how to adapt. And that's been, that's been the big key is getting everyone on-board to adapt very quickly.
[00:10:40.670] EP: Angie, in Amesbury, what was the effect of the pandemic on the small businesses early on?
[00:10:48.680] AC: Yeah, so we have quite a few small businesses. I would say about three quarters of our businesses are 10 or [fewer] employees. So, and many of them being, again, solopreneurs, entrepreneurs, home, home businesses. So, you know, the — but really the impact, you know, when you see the way our economy functions is the retailers and the restaurants. We don't have as many museums and large spaces as, as Newburyport does as a tourism [hub] because it's not really the basis of our economy. But, but that's where people — like I said, we have a, kind of a regional following with some of our restaurants. And those are the folks, especially those who couldn't adjust to outdoor dining and takeout quickly did suffer. There were some that didn't open until, gosh, mid— middle July. And, just to give some perspective, around, I think it was June 8th, was when we were allowed to do outdoor dining again, so most of our restaurants were doing takeout if they — most, most restaurants were doing takeout if they could. And that wasn't very many of ours, unfortunately. So around June 8th is when we could eat outdoors, again using same safety protocols, six feet apart. So what did that look like? And we can talk about that in the next, you know, as we get into kind of our recovery, but — and then from there, I think that June 28th, if our, if I'm, that, that date is right, but is when we were allowed to eat indoors. Again, very limited. The capacity is really, really limited [laughs]. So many restaurants chose not to do that because it just wasn't worth it to have staff basically staffing [laughs]. You know, hostessing and, and seating and serving people indoors. So it — that, that really was a big function of the, of how things are being, how they're struggling right now and how things are being affected in our businesses. And then the retailers also had a real challenge too. They — even when they weren't allowed to have people in their stores, some of them were doing curbside, but even that was limited. And, you know, folks — we're still seeing, and Matt referenced a survey, we've done a couple now. One to see what the impacts of the businesses were and what they needed; the other was around consumers. And we did that just recently. And still, people are not coming out to eat indoors. They want to eat outdoors. So it's definitely, we're still seeing the effects. We haven't seen anyone close their doors yet, so that, I'm actually really happy to see that. But there are some people on the hairy edge, and we're glad to see this funding come through and hoping that that's going to be their saving grace to plug the holes that they have right now.
[00:13:27.840] EP: You both have already commented a little bit on some of the forward-looking action that, that folks in Newburyport and Amesbury took, recognizing that there was a great need. I want to dig a little bit deeper into that. How did your city come together and plan out what you were doing to support your local economy? Tell me who was at the table and what role did planners play in convening and participating in that conversation? Matt, we'll go ahead and start with you.
[00:13:57.440] MC: Sure, I guess, I think — the direction came straight from the top. Our mayor has been pretty active throughout this whole pandemic, trying to get out ahead, really emphasizing that residents and businesses follow all the guidelines that are set forth by the CDC and then locally through the state. And, you know, when, when everything shut down, that was the point where she decided to be proactive and figure out what would happen when we reopen. Because we really had no idea what was going to happen back then. And fortunately, we have a very active chamber of commerce that, you know, much of our businesses are members of. So getting the Chamber of Commerce and we have a ward councilor that — his ward is downtown. So bringing them together and creating this task force was, was important, and we did that fairly early on in early May. And then from that task force, we, we created these sector groups. So every member of the task force also had a sector group that they were responsible for, or several sector groups. So, for instance, I led a group of our hospitality industry. We don't have big hotels, but we have several bed-and-breakfasts. So we met with them, kind of talked about what their needs were, what they were seeing. And then once the state guidelines came out for reopening, we talked more about how that meant — what that meant to their business and how, how — it was more about an open line of communication. There were some things that the city could do, but there's only so much that we can do as a small community. But we made sure that when we could help, we did. So that was important. So we had nine sector groups, restaurants, our business park retailers, nonprofits, places of worship. So we — you know, and then we had that survey as well, to try to make sure we touched on as many local businesses as possible to see how they were doing and figure out ways we could help. You know, as far as the role that planners played in this. My title here is Chief of Staff. But prior to this position, I've worked in several North Shore communities in their planning offices. Just previously, I was an economic development planner. So I think — you know, I was, I was there at the table early on, wearing my planner cap a little bit and understanding what it means to, how — when you [are] an economic planner, how you're kind of the concierge to help them navigate through the bureaucracy and grants and things that are available. We also have a very talented planning director as well who was on the task force. So we definitely had planners involved throughout the process. Going back to the outdoor dining, loosening of rules, we definitely — from a planner's perspective, we knew that outdoor dining made a ton of sense, that, where previously you may have had some backlash about the loss of parking spaces, you know, we already knew what parklets were. We could explain to the City Council what it means to have a parklet and that, and that it would be better for everyone and we could sacrifice a little parking to help our, our restaurants. You know, the loosening of parking restrictions as well for some of those nondowntown restaurants and businesses that had parking fields, that we could put tables and tents out there and that we could survive without that, that parking. So I think, you know, in some ways, us as planners, we've already known some of the, the best practices that were happening throughout the country, and we were able to apply them in this situation. And it really helped our businesses recover and get open. And, and like I said, I think that if there's any silver lining, we're, we're probably going to be changing a lot of the way we permit and allow outdoor dining, outdoor retailing. We actually closed for a couple days — a couple weekends we closed State Street, which is our main, our main thoroughfare. So — because we had planners involved, I truly believe that we were able to, you know, kind of, not push the envelope, but really apply best practices in a very quick way.
[00:18:05.960] EP: And Angie, what was the approach in Amesbury?
[00:18:09.460] AC: So similar to Newburyport, our mayor really led the charge because she was hearing what the — her peers around the state were doing. The state itself had developed a recovery task force and many communities followed suit. I shouldn't say "many" — several communities followed suit, two of which I kept in pretty mean contact with as we developed our task force, which we ended up calling the Amesbury Business Economic Adjustment Team, Amesbury BEAT. And so Newburyport and Salem are — have been two of the folks and — which is why Matt and I continue to talk so much, but have been my, I guess, partners in crime in a lot of ways on this. I touch base with both Newburyport and Salem on a regular basis about their teams, about their task forces, about the things that they're addressing, although again, Salem and Newbury Park probably have a little bit more in common than, than we do in Amesbury. We're still small cities. We still deal with a lot of the same issues. And the way that we're approaching this, we — as planners, we, we like to share. You know, we, we like to help each other, because there's no use reinventing the wheel. And so, in all three of these cities that I just mentioned, including ours, of course, a planner has led the, and is leading the effort. So in addition to the BEAT, which is comprised of our health departments, our — several businesses that we think, again, retailers and restaurants, which I mentioned earlier, which are really our, our capstones here — a couple of large office spaces, because again, we have an office presence here, and we wanted to understand better what these larger, more collaborative workspaces were going to look like as the regulations and protocols rolled out. A city councilor, which we thought was really key because, again, the connection between our, our maj— our major decision makers, especially as we looked for grants and looked for opportunities to fund and finance and support the efforts of our businesses. Obviously here the [Office of Community and Economic Development], but others that really have played a large role. And again, we as conveners, I felt that this was our role and so did the mayor, who [laughs] tasked me with being the the face of this and really the, the, I guess, facilitator, was to also work closely with our DPW, with our fire and police, with inspectional services, with procurement, which was going to be really key, especially once we get the grant — or once we did get the grant, and our chief finance officer. So the CFO has been at the table with us as well. But getting that background information resolved and addressed — well, addressed just to begin with and then resolved was really key, because if they weren't coming along with us throughout the program and throughout our thought process, we weren't going to be able to achieve things as, as easily as we did. We were able to really streamline our efforts because we brought these folks along with us from the get-go, basically since March or April. So, you know, it felt like because we, as Matt said, we understand kind of the ins and outs of how these systems work, how permitting works, how — what functions all of our departments play. You know, it's funny when a lot of our departments are like, What do you do there in the planning office? And [Emily laughs], but we all know what they do [laughs]. So we almost have a leg up of any other department in, in, in City Hall because we know what everybody's role is. We know how they all work together, and we can convene them based on their roles at the appropriate times. And I don't think that there's a better place for — or role for us as convener than, than — and, and especially in this time, like Matt said, there's so many facets involved with it. So it was exciting to be able to apply all the things that we've loved about our jobs in one, in one big thing. So the silver lining was definitely there.
[00:22:03.570] EP: Planners are able to see that bigger-picture view, which is exactly what we need right now in this moment. Talk to me a little bit both about the approaches you decided to take and where did planners play a role in those actions.
[00:22:16.900] MC: I think that, you know, I said, I mentioned before, you know, I have the planning background, we have a really strong planning director. And I also should mention that the, the, the city councilor, who is the, the ward councilor of downtown, he's also a planner and practicing land-use attorney. So, and we also all — I mean, surprisingly, we have a planning board that's comprised of retired planning directors, current planning directors. So, you know, Newburyport is kind of chock-full of planners. And I think that comes at an advantage. But, you know, I think the, the ability to, I think what Angie said before, that we, we have the ability to convene people, to bring them together, to set a process. It was really important to kind of reach out and make sure that every stakeholder was — we engaged with all the, as many stakeholders as possible through this, because we don't, we're, we're a small, we're a small government. We don't have many, we don't have a lot of resources to help people. We rely a lot on the state and federal governments to provide funding. But, you know, we can do that person-to-person outreach. And really, and I think that was really helpful and continues to be helpful throughout the whole process. But, you know, I think it's especially important during these times that, as Angie said, to have — you know, I've always thought planners are kind of jack-of-all-trades. We know a little bit of everything. And that definitely makes visualizing processes that, you know, they didn't exist before. A lot of the things we tried to do and processes did not exist. So having that brain and that training to kind of set it up fairly quickly, kind of anticipate what are the, what were the restrictions or what are the pitfalls of different things getting going was, was really important.
[00:24:07.800] AC: Yeah. And we, we also really understand how to apply some of these protocols and standards that are coming down the line to an urban environment. We have that vision that some of our peers in other city departments — some of them do have that, I'm not saying they don't, but because of our background and because of the way that we see the landscape and we see our downtowns and we see the way communities should be developed to create a sustainable environment, a vibrant environment, we could then have that foresight to reprogram public spaces for outdoor dining. Look at how our, we could shift gears for 15-minute parking spots, you know, where does it make the most sense for those places to be so that it doesn't interrupt traffic, it's safe. You know, how can we reuse, as Matt said, parklets, you know, how could we reuse parking spaces for that? I mean, most, most people didn't even know what a parklet was before this began, despite the fact that Parking Day has been an, an [laughs] — has, September 19th has been a holiday for planners for many years. But [Emily laughs] it's, it is now a more common term for folks because of the pandemic. And so it's almost bringing to bear some of the great, cool things that planners have come up with that just never became common language. And with that, you know, we also used our ability to take out the map. We created a map for who was open, because there was a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty, especially, again, as we talk about people coming out of the pandemic — out of their homes, I should say, from in the pandemic situation — many people are not, they're not sure who's even open. So how do we communicate that? And as, as planners, we, we understand the benefits and the importance of communication. And then surveys have been a really big thing for us, that, that approach was something that we just needed to have the numbers. Newburyport has a really high participation rate [laughs]. I don't know how you guys do it. And we try, and we do still get the numbers. It's, you know, and it is — they are telling us widely how to help us make more adjustments with our businesses. This most recent one, especially on consumer patterns and spending and where they're going, what they're not doing, what they are doing, what, what they want to see when they come out regarding PPP [laughs] — PPE, and, you know, business practices, you know, making sure there's social distancing, you know, the things that, that make them feel safe. And so, as planners, we know how to piece all those things together to support what needs to get done. And that's been the exciting thing again, is, is kind of allowing us to use all those tools from our toolbox. And then the grant funding has been key, too. That's been kind of my, my favorite part, because it obviously gives us [laughs] the juice that we needed to really — like the cherry on the top for this project, because without that, it's, it did come down to money. You know, the support we were providing all along was more moral and programmatic support, and now the financial support is really the cherry on top.
[00:27:11.700] EP: Well, thank you, Angie. That's the perfect segue to my next question. Of course, both the City of Amesbury and the City of Newburyport were awarded $400,000 in emergency Community [Development] Block Grant funding via the CARES Act, which was the first kind of tranche of emergency funding that Congress made available at the end of March. How has that funding been used so far in both communities? And I want to hear, what has it meant to your community? Is there a need for more federal support to help put small businesses and others on that pathway to recovery? Angie, why don't we start with you on this one?
[00:27:43.710] AC: Sure. So we just launched our application process, but we have been ready, as Matt knows, basically since we submitted the application on June 15th [laughs]. So we started developing all of that. And we're really ready to hit go as soon as we sign the contract with the [Massachusetts] Department of Housing and Community Development. So that application was launched two weeks ago today. And we've received twelve applications so far and quite a few inquiries. So, so we're still seeing the effects of, of what people are applying for. Most of it's for rent, mortgage, and payroll, with some sprinkled technical assistance requests. So things for updating or actually developing a web presence. Believe it or not, we still had some businesses out there that didn't have a strong web presence or even a website all together. And as we know, that's, that's going to be a hundred percent needed going forward for businesses to adjust to this. But the, the funding does provide up to $10,000 for — to support those things, so rent, mortgage, payroll, technical assistance. You know, there's a need for more, especially I think it needs to be a little bit less restrictive. But we're going to go with what we have for right now [laughs; Emily laughs]. We're hearing a lot that it's, unfortunately, the PPE program really hindered a lot of sole proprietors because they were not eligible, and other small businesses. But then our program also limits to low- and moderate-income and people under five or less employees, so — and only for-profit. So you have these limitations that [are] still creating some holes and some needs. So we're hoping to keep our eye on those things and figure out where there are other either programs or ways that we can fill those holes.
[00:29:33.220] MC: We were really fortunate to to receive a combined $800,000 between both communities. As we mentioned before, we are — we're cities, but we're also small cities. We — our populations are both under 20,000. And we have limited resources. We have small planning departments that — we're already dealing with, you know, working remotely and doing all the things they're currently doing. So when the, when the grant announcement came out, I started looking into it and immediately thought, Well, wouldn't it be great if we could partner with another local city such as Amesbury? And, you know, Angie and I go back pretty far now, I think seven years or so. And the reason why we met is, you know, just not to plug APA too much, but, you know, the reason why we met is because of the social gatherings like the Southern New England APA conference and things like that. So getting to know your, your planners in your state, you know, it was a quick phone call to Angie. She'd already been looking at the application as well. And, you know, very quickly, I think over a weekend, we got both mayors to sign on and agree to, to work on this. And we — and Amesbury had a few more resources than, than we did. They had an administrator, a CDBG-experienced administrator that they could bring to the table for us. And they're actually administering the grant program on behalf of both communities. And that's something we just couldn't simp— we didn't have the bandwidth to do it. We had a grant writer, so our grant writer helped put the application together. So, you know, it was really — you know, because we had a — Angie and I had a good relationship and Amesbury and Newburyport are budding cities, we were able to put this together really quickly. I mean, we were, we, we turned around an application within a, I think like a week or two. We were ahead of — they even extended the deadline, but we were ready to go. And since we, even — once we applied for the grant and we hit the ground running and put together a team to kind of put, you know, put the application together and streamline it as much as possible, get the website set up. So, you know, we just were awarded the grant, I think, what, a couple of weeks ago. You know, we had to go through our city councils to tie all the loose ends. But we, we did it as quickly as possible because we knew that our businesses need the money now. I mean, there was really — we didn't want to get the money and take another month or two to figure this all out. We kind of hedged that we were going to get this grant money. And I think the reason why we were able to get it — and we got the full amount, too, so — which is not what every community got. And it's because we teamed up and, and tried to, tried to figure this all out. So it's great to have this money. I mean, $400,000 for our community, it was — we had, we had nothing anywhere close to that that we could offer businesses. And we'll work with what the — the strings that are attached with the program. We will work within those guidelines. I mean, we know through our survey work that we have, you know, forty or so businesses that felt that they qualified as a microenterprise, income-qualified, five or fewer employees. So we knew that going into this grant program, we had businesses that needed that help, and — but there's many more businesses that won't fit into that box, and we'll have to figure out other ways to help them out. And, you know, if there's more money coming from the top, from the state and the federal government, there's, there's many ways that we could, we could spend that money and get it into the hands of our local businesses that, that truly need all the help they can get right now.
[00:33:05.100] EP: So let's talk a little bit about the other steps that the community has taken and, and what are the results that you're seeing, and, and what do you anticipate to see as these funds are deployed to local businesses?
[00:33:18.060] AC: We, you know, we did so much, it feels like every day — I don't know what a regular job would look like without COVID at this point, so that's an interesting [Emily laughs] — and I've heard that a lot from our peers, that their regular work is, is not the same anymore. That said, we still do take community development very seriously in, in Amesbury. And so working with our local social service agency, we worked to find some funding to make sure that homeowners are also protected and that anybody who needs aid for rent or mortgage assistance, food, utility payments, that, that there is a fund out there to help create some support systems for them because they're also, they're our consumers, too. So it's a circle of life. And, but we do want to keep as many of our residents and businesses sustainable here in, in Amesbury.
[00:34:17.020] MC: I think early on, when this, when this pandemic first came upon us, we anticipated that there were going to be lots of people that were really going to be hurting once businesses closed, once schools closed, once people were at home caring for their children and, and then, and then rent and mor— and mortgage and everything. So, like Amesbury, our Affordable Housing Trust and the mayor created a rental assistance program so that, you know, for income-qualified folks in town, there is money to recover, recover up to three months of rent. So that — these are our employees, these are our consumers. So that was important. And we were fortunate to put that together. I think that this CDBG grant program, the ability to give a business $10,000 is a huge boost to them. You know, that's probably several months of back rent that they haven't been able to cover or any losses in revenue or, or payroll that they would need to deal with. And, you know, that not only helps that local business, but it also helps our landlords too. Anticipating going forward, we're actually about to do some direct outreach to our landlords. We were really going straight to the businesses, but right now we also understand that we're going to have landlords that have not had a lot of their tenants pay rent for a long time. And what are they thinking about? What do they anticipate? What are the, what are they seeing as far as vacancy? So that's, that's something that we'll be looking into as well. We did hire a social worker. We have a very robust youth services program. And they pivoted to — a lot of the recreational services that were closed down, they pivoted to focusing way more on, on social services. So that was huge, having that social worker make, make referrals to our oth— our, our nongovernmental partners. So that was covered by the CARES Act. Our senior center was closed. Our senior center still is closed. But we did continued doing the Meals on Wheels program. We continued to transport our seniors. And our schools as well, we opened up — it wasn't just a free lunch program, but it was free meals for the week. So families could go down to the, to the middle school and pick up meals for the week. So, you know, it's trying to provide as much direct, direct outreach as possible. And a lot of our residents really and our businesses really rose to the occasion. We had a local toy store that provided 200 gifts to 200 kids in Newburyport, which was really very, in very difficult times, to kind of cheer people up. And, you know, we've had over 5,000 gift card donations too that we've been distributing to people that needed them to our local grocery store or what, or whatnot. So, I mean, I think, you know, the pandemic has really helped us come together in certain ways, to help each other out, to pick each other up. And this grant program is going to do the same thing. And I think that, you know, at least in our neck of the woods, where we are in northern, the North Shore of Massachusetts, I mean, people are really following all the guidelines. Like I said, we have this mask zone, but we still have 80 to 90 percent, if you walk down the street, of people wearing masks and, and doing the right thing and understanding what it means to, to wear a mask. So, you know, I guess what we anticipate going forward is we had a really, really good summer. You know, we are, we have a, a very active harbor. Our harbor master said that this is by far the busiest season they've ever had. People who've had boats or didn't use them, they are now using their boats. So, you know, going forward, that's something we're looking — that'll be a change and that'll certainly help our local economy. And we've, we've taken on online reservation systems to make it easier to allow people to come downtown by boat. So, you know, pivoting going forward, you know, we've been holding our public meetings virtually through Zoom since, from the get-go. And, you know, eventually we will have in-person meetings. But as a planner, I feel like Zoom is just a value-added tool to allow for, for more proc— for more participation. I mean, myself, I have two small children at home, and I can't make every night meeting, but if I can Zoom in in my local community in addition to having in-person, I think that's only going to help us going forward with — that's always been our struggle is getting people to come up, come out to our public meetings. Also looking forward as well, you know, transitioning — municipalities are, you know, it's still a person-to-person transactional nature. But we are able, we were able to, you know, expand our online services, particularly because we're not necessarily allowing a lot of people into City Hall right now. So that's been that's been something that's pushed, pushed us a little bit to, to adapt more quickly. And, you know, this summer's been great for our boating, our recreational boating. We still have people coming to town, which is great, which, you know, it's a gift and a curse because we want people to come, but we want them to come safely. So we've, we've kind of struggled through that. But the s— the weather's been fantastic for us. We've had, you know, I think it's really helped our local businesses because we've had so many visitors come to town. But the weather will change soon. And what does that mean once winter comes? That's something that we're really starting to look at now. I mean, heat lamps can only help through — for Massachusetts — October, maybe November? What happens then and where will we be in November with, with the pandemic? Are people going to be comfortable going inside? Right now it's — why would you go inside because the weather's been so nice. So that's something that, that we'll be looking into as well in the future.
[00:40:04.080] EP: Angie, how about in Amesbury?
[00:40:07.550] AC: I would say in addition to similar funds that, that Matt has talked about and a lot of those programs, you know, rental assistance as well as free meals for those students, we're also looking at — and I know Newburyport's done this, so we're following suit with some of our neighbors — but implementing online permitting. It's something that I know a lot of communities are looking into, but it really underscored the need for that when the pandemic hit and we all had to work from home for a couple of months. So it, you know, in addition to it being something that is more remote and allows us to be, to do our work anywhere, it does make a more efficient and transparent process. And really, to be honest, that's been one of the underpinnings of this entire process is, is transparency and making sure everybody understands what the process is. So it's taught us to communicate better, what the steps are that we're doing and to do them. We have an amazing communications director who constantly nudges us with and prompts us with the right questions to ask and the right things to think about that we need to tell people. So what, what is the story? And gives us those regular bullet points to make sure we're hitting those — and what to think about, like, what from the — a resident's perspective. And it's not that we're not thinking about those things, but sometimes you get so excited about telling a story and you may miss out a couple of pieces, and she's really good at seeing where those gaps are. And also making an incredible social media online presence, redoing our website. It's really taught us that we were missing some things, we were missing some really big things — and, and maybe that residents and businesses didn't know that they were missing. But now that they're there, they're like, wow, I can't believe you didn't have a newsletter for economic development before or that you didn't have a Facebook page for businesses, you know, because we created a new page for them to be able to communicate amongst themselves as well. We also did — Matt had mentioned the industry-specific groups and their — he called them sector-specific. Those were really key for us to understand better what restaurants are facing versus what retail businesses or office spaces [are facing] or salons. Salons have really been hit in a, in a different way than many of our other businesses because they really only can have one or two people in the salon at a time. And the salons in our, in Amesbury have really been limiting it to one. So that — even though they may have multiple services, they are only allowed to have that one service with that one client. And that's — and they can't sell retail, they can't be open to the public coming in because of the protocols, that they have to wash the stations after the — so it's really, it helped us to adjust a little bit differently on how we talk with them, you know, making sure that if there are specific things that we can help them with. We were thinking about doing some joint purchasing around maybe a laundry service. So it's made us rethink how we can help them work together as well, because they, some of them do feel like they're floating alone. We all, we all have our great planners' network, and thank goodness for it, because I don't know what I'd do without it. But we, I think we take it for granted that we think other industries may have those, and some of them do. But for the most part, creating that family of, of not just all the businesses, but the ones that are, that have a joint purpose and, and, I guess, alignment in their business model has been really helpful for them so they don't think they're floating alone.
[00:43:43.410] EP: I'm hearing from both of you that as the situation continues to evolve and we continue to learn lessons from this pandemic, that we all need to work together to kind of help each other pivot and prepare and adapt for the future. I'm wondering, what are you doing to help those small businesses prepare for potentially the next pandemic or another economic crisis?
[00:44:09.000] AC: We, we actually made a cognizant decision between Newburyport and Amesbury, just as a, as a joint thing that we're doing, to, to bring to bear that these businesses don't, shouldn't be thinking about recovery; they should be thinking about bouncing forward. They should be thinking about how to become more resilient. So it's part of the application itself. We ask them specifically, How do you, how is this going to make you stronger? How is funding you right now going to really boost you and not just bring you back to a normal? Because it's not normal. It's not going to be a normal. It's going to be a new normal. And we're not going back to the way it was. It's, and then the more we can continue saying that in a gentle way, unless you really need to slap them [laughs] about it. But we are trying to be gentle about it but, because it is a, this is jarring for a lot of people. So how we can break that news gently but consistently [that] we need to be stronger, in a stronger place when we're done with this and that there could be a couple more fits and starts in this, that this is an uncertain time but that the way that we're all working together is, is a new model. It is the silver lining. And so it's almost like we need to keep hitting on the silver-linings piece instead of how it's affected us and impacted us in a negative way. How has it helped us be stronger as a community, as a business, as a person? Whatever level that is that we need to communicate. That's how I've, that's really honestly how I've been getting through too. So might as well help people adjust to what's working for your own self, or at least, at least impart the knowledge on them. If they decide not to use it, that's — so be it. But, but it is important and we've, we have been talking about that it's going to be a new normal and we're going to get there eventually and we're all going to work together to do it. So, but they need to reimagine themselves and have some innovation. And we're — our doors are open. My phone line's open. My email's open to have those conversations about being on LinkedIn, about being on social media, you know, getting an online presence, you know, thinking about how to adjust what you do. There was a salon that — sorry, I keep focusing on those because [laughs] I just got my toenails done [Emily laughs]. But she mentioned to me that facials are going, are going to be the way of the wind. We're just, we're not going to see facials in the near future because they are so high risk and so, like, close contact and it's hard — you can't wear a mask as you're getting a facial, duh. So how can salons still provide that service? Maybe by providing the contents of that facial into a package to sell so that you don't have any variations in the products you're using anymore. It's still that consistent product, and then you create a video on how to use it. And so it's, this is the innovation I'm talking about, like, that was a brilliant idea. So it's still providing that service, it's just not hands-on. It's, it's providing it in a package. So we're happy to be part of that conversation with people. I'm constantly just wowed and inspired by, by how cool these ideas have been. And I want to continue to support them and tell them to keep it up, you know, and we'll share those ideas as we can. But, yeah, stronger together for sure.
[00:47:23.400] EP: That's perhaps a good segue to my next question. Disruptive events like [the] COVID-19 pandemic create a lot of challenges for communities, but also provide the opportunity for reimagining and reinventing, as we've just said. What advice do you both have for planners who want to help their communities not just stay solvent but recover stronger?
[00:47:43.500] MC: I guess for, you know, advice for planners, I think — you know, be quick to adapt. I think that, I think Angie could say the same thing. I mean, no one — there was no regulations or a handbook of how to handle a pandemic. You know, we, we have a lot — we have lots of education and experience of, you know, planning really spans across all different types of disciplines. And, you know, I think that, at least in our two communities, we had planners that weren't afraid to kind of pivot very quickly and really begin focusing on what was most important. Because, you know, everything is impor— everything is important, but also what's more time sensitive, what's more urgent. And I think that, you know, in my conversations with Angie, this sense of urgency to help our, our local businesses, we both shared that. And, you know, that kind of takes precedent right now, what is truly important and what is truly time sensitive. And that's kind of how we've managed things here in Newburyport as well. You know, so the ability to kind of adapt very quickly. And then once you do that, you know, you have to listen to what, what people want. And in a pandemic, you definitely, you know, we had eight — those eight hundred people, they were very happy to give feedback to us. And, you know, it's trying to pick out exactly what we can and can't do. We're not, we're not an ATM machine. So, you know, everyone wants — and nor can we just wave a magic wand and take your taxes away. But we'll listen to you, we'll hear you, and we'll figure out ways we can make adjustments. You know, and because of that feedback, like I said, we were able to get this grant funding, which is, which is huge for, for communities of our size. And, you know, we were able to put teams together, and we permitted 35 outdoor dining setups in, I think, three days. And that was working with our city councilors and, you know, Zoom obviously helps get meetings through. And, you know, we're able to meet publicly now over Zoom. So that was a pivot. But again, our licensing commission in there, and, you know, they cranked them out, and in a couple hours we had 35 new outdoor seating areas for our, for our restaurants. And, you know, some of these restaurants, like I said, are down on State Street, our main drag. Those buildings are from 1812. And we had restaurants, really nice restaurants, great restaurants that had maybe — they only had, like, six tables, they only seated 15 people inside. So I mean, if not for the outdoor seating and creating the parklets, I mean, I don't, I don't know what they would have — most certainly would have, would have closed shop. So, you know, once we, once you listen to what the community wanted and gave a little thought of how we can, how we can provide those services quickly, I mean, that was, that was just a great example of the, the outdoor seating and utilizing our parks. You know, we have a great parks commission here and they — and we have a lot of yoga studios, fitness studios that were, they weren't able to open until much recently. They weren't even able to have classes inside. And our Parks Commission said, Well, we have great parks, we — here you go. You can have space in our parks. We'll, it'll be during the week. It won't be in our busiest times. But you can have these four, four feet. You can continue charging your, your fees of however you do for your classes. You can be outside, and we'll waive the normal fees as well, so that way you can have it for free. So I mean that, that — our, our planning director, that was his, that was his sector, was the, was the fitness and recreation folks. So I guess the advice is to pivot very quickly, listen, and then figure out ways to execute and do it quickly. And it's been very — it's a, you know, maybe a little bit more seat of the pants than, by the seat of your pants than we're more comfortable with. But that's kind of what the, you know, kind of rising to the occasion and doing what was necessary during these times.
[00:51:40.020] EP: Angie, any thoughts?
[00:51:43.710] AC: Yeah, I'll, I'll reiterate a previous comment, because I think this is important, too, is we, we do need to keep beating that drum that we're not going back to a new normal. We're going — we're not going back to the way it was. We're going, we're moving to a new, a new economic model, a new social model, a new environmental model in a lot of ways too. This pandemic has created a lot of waste unfortunately. It rolled back some of our plastic bag bans and things that we were really proud of and in making some major progress in cleaning up our environment. So it's, it's remembering that — keeping those things in mind, the commitment to those things and figuring out how we can use our innovative, cool, you know, imaginative brains as planners to get past these things. And how do you bring the community along with you? It's, let's not — it's — yes, we want those things back and we can do those things, but how can you work with your community to, to do them creatively? I actually mentioned that to our DPW director — one of the things that is recommended for our restaurants is to use single-serve plasticware instead of — for anything. Not just for takeout, but also for dining in and outdoor dining. And my heart jumped out of my chest when I heard that, thinking, Oh, my God, how much waste we're going to be creating with all this stuff. Like, we just made so much progress. So, you know, it's, it's — some of these ideas can be passed along to your, to the department heads so that, because they're not things that we're all going to be able to solve as planners. But the fact that we're thinking about these things — pass them along to the right people. Use this as an opportunity to continue or even revitalize relationships with — whether it's department heads or some of your, your community leaders. I know for, again, for our social service agencies, that's been a great opportunity to revitalize some discussions around food security, around rental assistance, you know, working with folks like our Community Action, Inc. and our Salvation Army. So this has been that, and that — luckily we have a relationship with them, but this is my opportunity to almost insert myself, too, because I haven't even met some of them yet [laughs; Emily laughs]. So it's — there are so many opportunities to, in this world right now. And I think it's, it's about making those connections. I think another big one was around Councils on Aging because the seniors have been affected as well in this, because many of them are living alone or still afraid to come out. And so we've been doing Zoom calls with them and promoting what the planners are doing here at City Hall for our businesses and for our community still. So use this as an opportunity to do the outreach because they are participating in these, in these, in these forums. They're using Zoom and GoToMeeting. And obviously a phone call is still not a bad thing, so [laughs]. But since we're tied to our desks, for the most part, I think my bigger takeaway would be, let's, let's take the opportunity to continue to reach out. Let's not think that it's just, you know, a conveyor belt of work all the time.
[00:54:50.090] EP: Well, I'm feeling incredibly inspired by both of you. Thank you so much for taking time. I have one final question for you, and that's for our listeners at home who, I'm sure at this point, want to hear more about your work both in Newburyport and Amesbury. How can they learn more about what you're doing?
[00:55:08.740] AC: Our website, our main page is Amesbury MA dot gov [amesburyma.gov], and we, everything that I just spoke about for the Business Economic Adjustment Team, our Back to Business program, any of our social service work, it's all on the main page, and the grant.
[00:55:25.870] MC: And Newburyport is City of Newburyport dot com [cityofnewburyport.com]. Once you're there, you'll see we have a COVID page, we have an economic recovery page, and we're linked to Amesbury's page as well for the grant program. And we also have social media as well. We have Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. We're on LinkedIn as well, so that's actually me that does all of that as well. So you'll be talking directly to me if you want to reach out over social media.
[00:55:53.520] EP: And I know folks will be [Matt and Angie laugh].
[00:55:56.670] AC: And we also have Twitter — I apologize, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram.
[00:56:05.280] EP: Well, you heard it at home, everyone. You can contact both Angie and Matt in a number of ways to learn about the incredible work that they are doing. And I'm sure we'll all be watching to see how this continues to play out. I want to thank you both for taking time to talk with me today. It's been so energizing and just exciting to hear about the good work that's going on in your communities and a good reminder that planners are so essential to the economic recovery work that's happening across the country. And, and we're lucky to have you two as members. Thank you for your time.
[00:56:39.210] AC: Thank you.
[00:56:40.170] MC: Thanks so much.
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