PHOTO: EFORALL/EPARATODOS CONDUCTS OUTREACH SURVEYS IN THE MERRIMACK VALLEY BUSINESS COMMUNITY
In the wake of the Sept. 13, 2018 gas fires in the Merrimack Valley, nearly 1,000 small businesses in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover faced unprecedented challenges. Restaurants, bakeries and small markets lost their inventories. Salons and other service providers lost their customers and clients, many of whom were forced to move to temporary housing or were struggling to keep warm or put food on the table themselves.
Days without gas service turned into weeks, then months. And suddenly, for many Greater Lawrence residents, the “new” normal routine no longer held the opportunity for them to patronize their favorite local businesses.
In the weeks immediately following the gas disaster, 24 percent of affected businesses were forced to close, while another 39 percent were struggling to stay afloat.
“The biggest concern was that a lot of businesses were going to close and that a lot of them were never going to reopen,” said Derek Mitchell, executive director of the Lawrence Partnership, an organization that rallied in the early weeks of the disaster, and continues to convene business relief efforts today. “To this point a lot of them have reopened but at a lower capacity than they were and we’re still working pretty diligently to get those businesses back to where they were before the gas crisis hit.”
Work to resurrect Merrimack Valley businesses has been funded by a commitment to business resiliency from Columbia Gas, made in November 2018.
Two million dollars has been allocated to the acute phase of this work. This phase includes technical assistance, emergency loan distribution, disaster-related assistance and extensive outreach work addressing the immediate needs of the businesses to help as many of them as possible return to pre-disruption levels by July 1, 2019, when a longer term plan for business resiliency and strategy in the region will be announced.
Since the gas disaster, EforAll/EparaTodos, a bilingual nonprofit focused on business development, has spearheaded the outreach work to the affected businesses through nearly 3,000 site visits, phone calls and other activities to date.
“They have been out there engaging with business owners, listening, learning and building the relationships that are critical to the immediate problem solving and the long-term success of a regional business strategy,” said Stratton Lloyd, COO and vice president for community leadership at ECCF.
Also in the works is a regional marketing campaign that will increase awareness of the hundreds of shops, restaurants and services in the three communities. Set to launch in June, the campaign will run through the summer and unite the business communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover in an effort to drive more customers to the region.
But, of course, nothing can happen without capital. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in emergency loans – administered by Mill Cities Community Investments, a Lawrence-based Community Development Financial Institution with a successful commercial lending program in Lawrence for non-bankable small businesses – and business stabilization funding from the ECCF fund, have been committed to more than 60 local businesses, with dozens more in the pipeline. Claims support and advocacy services for businesses struggling to navigate the Columbia Gas claims process – led by EforAll/EparaTodos – have also been widely used.
Additional partners in this work include the City of Lawrence, the Town of Andover, the Town of North Andover, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Mass Growth Capital Corporation (MGCC) and MassHire/Merrimack Valley Workforce Board.
Because of this collective effort, today, 70 percent of affected businesses are back to their pre-crisis operational state. And though much work remains to restore the 24 percent of businesses that are still struggling and the six percent that remain closed, the success of this effort has paved the way for an expansion of this type of business resiliency work, something that ECCF has long cared very deeply about.
When the gas disaster occurred in 2018, the Foundation was already at work on strategizing a collaborative small business resiliency plan for Essex County as part of Empowering Economic Opportunity – the Alpha Project of ECCF’s Impact Essex County initiative, the Foundation’s lasting commitment to address the most critical issues affecting our 34 cities and towns.
The EEO Small Business Resiliency and Venture Fund will build on Mill Cities’ longstanding work in Lawrence – and ECCF and its partners will use what we’ve learned from the Merrimack Valley business relief effort – to build permanent commercial lending programs for non-bankable businesses. We will begin in Andover and North Andover with the long-term vision of a countywide venture collaborative and systems approach to business resiliency and support.