Nancy Edmonds Hanson
The Moorhead Business Association celebrated its tenth birthday last week … on the 11th anniversary of its founding.
The reason, of course, was the Covid-19 pandemic. “We couldn’t get together last year, so we had to delay,” executive director Sheri Larson pointed out to the nearly 150 members who gathered at the Courtyard by Marriott on Nov. 11. But aside from not planning the canceled gala 12 months ago, she and assistant director Nick Lehr have had plenty on their plate to keep them busy.
The pandemic had turned the normal work of the member-funded association on its head. At the same time, though, the year’s unexpected upsets focused a spotlight on the MBA’s onging role in the business and nonprofit community. Instead of merely concentrating on making connections among Moorhead businesses, Sheri and Nick took on an unprecedented challenge: Providing information and support for companies to qualify for emergency funding under the federal CARES Act and Payroll Protection Plan, a life-saver for those whose doors were closed and whose prospects dimmed under public health restrictions.
They worked closely with the Moorhead and Clay County CARES Act committees to get word out to every business in the area – a perhaps surprising challenge, despite the generous aid available through local allocations from the two federal programs. Through 2020 and into 2021, the two were answering calls from distressed businesses and getting out the word on how struggling business owners could qualify for aid.
“We used social media to the max. We knocked on doors. We were answering phone calls late into the night,” Nick says. “It was our regular mission – but supercharged.”
They found that many local businesses they approached didn’t know about the survival funding that was available or have any idea they qualified. “Early on, many weren’t too concerned. They told us, ‘We’re OK,’” Sheri remembers. “But no one knew how long this was going to go on. As it stretched out, the panicky phone calls started.”
They did whatever they could – pointing businesses to resources, distributing free masks provided by the Chamber of Commerce, delivering applications and – as time grew short – even picking up completed paperwork and turning it in. Nick conducted live how-to sessions via Facebook video. “And sometimes, the best we could do was just listen to them worry out loud, kind of like a counselor,” he adds. In the end, he says, “a huge portion of MBA members got the money they needed.” The countywide total: more than $1.8 million, apportioned among 17 nonprofits; 42 sole proprietorships; 96 small businesses; 52 woman-, minority and veteran-owned businesses; and 16 larger employers.
Beyond chasing Covid relief grants, the MBA team worked with individual businesses to help them pivot to doing business pandemic-style. As restaurants closed, they brought in Deb McGregor of the West Center Small Business Development Center for a webinar on offering and promoting take-out orders. Nick created “Support Moorhead Restaurant/Bars,” a group that urges locals to patronize local establishments with take-out orders, promotes eateries’ specials and shares tips for FB-powered outreach. He also worked with individual operations to promote their specials and update their online communications in what was, to many, the all-new online environment.
And there’s evidence it worked. “Thai Orchid had just laid off all its employees, down to only family,” Sheri reports. “The day after ‘Support Moorhead Restaurants’ went up, they were slammed with twice the orders they’d have normally had on a good day.”
Other businesses, too, performed the Covid pivot. Ace Hardware began taking called-in orders and bringing them to the curb for pick-up. Sunset Lanes organized an outdoor movie night with take-out pizza. The American Legion collaborated with Jay’s Smokin’ Barbecue and Uptown Catering to cover when their own kitchen staff was unavailable.
Like their members, the MBA duo dived into the hunt for creative solutions to new and sometimes unexpected obstacles. “You never knew what the day would be like,” Sheri says. But in the end, they report, their role during the pandemic was very much like their normal mission – on steroids.
“The MBA is, first of all, a group of friends. A family,” she points out. “It’s all about relationships. We operate like friends first, and businesses second. That’s the spirit that has helped us all get through this experience.”
During the past 12 months, often working outside their office, she and Nick have held more than 100 events – 52 Let’s Talk Business breakfasts and lunches (some via Zoom, others in person); five highly successful Moorhead Cruise Nights; 18 events for the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Frostival; the Fourth of July “Oooh Aaah” fireworks extravaganza; Bridge Bash to welcome collegians back; monthly gatherings of their Nonprofit Alliance; and all the incidental committee meetings needed to carry off a full calendar. “I can’t really say how many that adds up to,” Sheri notes. “It’s all kind of a blur.”
In the end, the strongest testimony to the MBA’s vitality and effectiveness lies in the membership report presented at the banquet. In 2015, when they celebrated their fifth anniversary, a total of 120 businesses belonged to the group. During the first year of the pandemic, membership rose to 236. By the end of October 2021, it had hit 339 … and is still rising, with several sign-ups already logged since the banquet last week.
Nick suggests local businesses are looking to the coming year with real optimism. “They’re not necessarily all stronger than before, but they are definitely coming back strong,” he says. “They have learned to be lean and mean – to look at all their options and to pivot.”
At the same time, signs are showing up of another pandemic-related outdome. Twenty of the MBA’s newer members have launched their businesses during the past year. “We’re seeing a lot of people choosing this moment to take the leap and start something they’ve been thinking about,” Nick notes. He cites such varied enterprises as FM Aerial and Movement Arts and several home bakeries, some offering gluten-free, vegan and other hard-to-find specialties.
“New talents are coming out,” he observes, and adds, “Isn’t that what Moorhead is all about? We’re the quirky, creative ones. It’s a good time to be a little bolder.”