Your news feed is probably full of articles on the impact COVID-19 has had on our nation, but what about Wayne County Indiana? We’re used to hearing about things on a broader scale but what about the local response? We took the time to talk to seven Wayne County leaders about the impact COVID-19 has had on our communities, what they’ve been doing to help, and their outlook on Wayne County’s future.

Covid Impact on Wayne Co

Hardest Hit Industries

Some businesses saw a huge increase in volume – like grocery stores. Others came to a screeching halt – think anything deemed “non-essential,” like the small retailers that you might find in the downtown parts of our communities. Now, according to Melissa Vance, President and CEO of the Wayne County Area Chamber of Commerce, we’re seeing an impact on our local restaurants: “Restaurants focused so diligently on overcoming all of the precautions and regulations. They adapted to serve the community in new ways. Now that time has passed and the initial government assistance has run out, their capacity is still incredibly reduced. The State has lifted capacity per se, but social distancing is still required, which affects the number of tables they can seat at any given time.” 

Schools were also thrown into unfamiliar territory. “Our teachers did their best and it was overwhelming. We planned for two weeks out of the classroom and we ended up spending the rest of the year at home. Teachers taught with whatever resources they had available at home,” said Dr. George Philhower, Superintendent of Western Wayne Schools.

He continued to point out that the COVID-19 crisis highlighted all the different services schools provide within the community – and how noticeable it was when those services weren’t available. “You don’t realize how complex this organization is until you have to rethink everything that’s happening. When we’re operating, there’s a lot of families that depend on us for childcare. The economy of Wayne County depends on us to fulfill that need in addition to providing education. There’s also a growing number of families that need us for food.”

Local non-profits saw a significant increase in demand of services. Pre-COVID, there were hungry people and people struggling to pay rent. There were children with social and emotional needs. “What the pandemic did was exacerbate those existing issues and multiply the numbers,” said Tamara Brinkman, President of the United Way of Whitewater Valley.

“Those that were already in need – their need became greater. Families that didn’t previously have a need for outside help found themselves in need or on the verge when government support ran out. Those families were previously teetering on the edge but doing ‘okay.’ Now they’re ALICE families. It won’t be forever, but if you ran reports on where they stood in January of 2020 and where they ended up over the summer, you would see that change. It remains to be seen how long this will last.”

Our Local Response

Wayne County is no stranger to tough times, we shared how we have gotten through those times in We Will Get Through This Together article last spring. We’ve seen many examples of the community working together to ensure we came out of a crisis stronger than before. Although COVID-19 was a change we hadn’t faced before, Wayne County residents knew what to do to survive. Here are a few ways we banded together to weather the storm – and some on-going endeavors you can support if you’re looking for ways to make a difference.

Business Support

“We don’t have an exact number, but we know of a few businesses that closed permanently,” said Melissa Vance. “We received $250,000 in funds for small businesses in the downtown area. Those grants of $5,000-$10,000 helped tremendously, but it only helped for so long. We have to start utilizing our local economy again.”

Education is widely available for business owners looking for help. Roxie Deer, Director of Professional Development at the Wayne County Area Chamber of Commerce, added, “We encourage our businesses to think outside of the box: if something isn’t working right now, try a new business model. We’ve taken some of our educational initiatives and shifted from pre-COVID topics, like marketing, insurance, and retirement, to more relevant topics like managing remote workers, and marketing during a pandemic.”

“One role that the Chamber plays is advocacy for our businesses,” said Melissa Vance. “When all of the new programs were being rolled out from a Federal and State level, we were busy taking it all in, digesting it, and translating the information in an easy-to-access way for our members.”

The Chamber of Commerce also offered monthly Think Tank sessions with experts across the state to answer questions and ensure business felt heard by our senators and representatives. The government officials got the chance to tell our local businesses about aid programs they were working on and they heard directly from our members about the biggest challenges faced by local business owners due to COVID-19 – with the hope that they’d take the message back to Washington, D.C. and Indianapolis.

“The challenges were very different: from a boutique owner who couldn’t access masks to allow shoppers to enter the building to a large manufacturer whose employees desperately needed reliable childcare so they could come back to work,” said Melissa Vance.

The Richmond Innovation Center’s biggest goal is to get businesses back on their feet. Beth Newton, Executive Director of Innovation Center, joined in June and was given the opportunity to write the city’s COVID grant. “The $250,000 grant was a good size. We were able to have two rounds of distribution and were able to include microenterprises in the last round. We’re working on getting a third round distributed as the State approves more businesses,” Newton said. “There are still grant opportunities out there. A lot of businesses have seen a decrease in revenue and there’s no guarantee that PPP loans will be forgiven. Grants are peace of mind for business owners.” She encourages business owners to keep looking for grant opportunities and to rely on the Innovation Center to point them towards these resources. Grant and loan opportunities can also be found on the Wayne County Area Chamber of Commerce website.

The Economic Development Corporation of Wayne County worked with several partners in the community to develop a zero-interest loan program to support the hardest hit businesses. “I’m really proud of the support we’ve been able to provide. Since the loan program began in June, we’ve distributed $746,000 to 32 businesses in Wayne County, supporting multiple industries: hotels, bars, restaurants, service providers, dance studios, retailers, and manufacturers,” said Valerie Shaffer, President of the EDC.

$900,000 was pooled by five partners: the EDC through EDIT funds, the existing Wayne County loan fund board, the City of Richmond, Wayne County government funds, and the Economic Growth Group. “We are developing another program to utilize the remaining funds to focus on locally-owned and operated restaurants where colder months are going to hurt those surviving by serving outdoor seating. Restaurants are at huge risk right now,” continued Shaffer.

Restaurant Week

“We are in the midst of planning Restaurant Week. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we couldn’t do our Annual Taste of Wayne County event, but we still want to celebrate and promote our local restaurants,” said Roxie Deer. “We’re adapting the original event to promote their businesses and we’re using our marketing budget to promote it. We’re hoping people get out and try something new – and maybe find a new favorite. Hopefully, they’ll see more foot traffic during October 17-25 – which spans two weekends. We’ll be doing radio advertising. Instead of asking people to come out to an event, we want you to support those restaurants by dining out or carrying out.”

Foundation Support

The Wayne County Foundation immediately established a COVID-19 Crisis Relief Grant program as we started to see the effects of the pandemic on Wayne County. Their goal was to get grants out to organizations that needed to stay open to serve highly vulnerable communities. (Curious about some of the recipients? Read about how they used their grants.) The Foundation also continued with their normal Spring Grant Cycle.

“An amazing handful of donors came forward who were interested in doing something for the community,” said Rebecca Gilliam, Executive Director of the Wayne County Foundation. “They wanted to assist the county by targeting individuals and families that were suffering either from working on the front lines or from positions that had been eliminated.” That began the Wayne County Cares Fund. Individual donors contributed and the Foundation added gifts to the fund. They made grants for rent assistance, grocery gift cards, utility assistance, and medical coverage. The Foundation is still doing this: “There’s still tremendous need, so that fund will stay in place,” said Gilliam.

The next source of aid to come from the Foundation was the Non-Profit Loan Program. The Foundation noticed there was a gap in coverage from the government’s aid packages where non-profits were excluded. Non-profits didn’t have access to much else in the way of aid and these were the same organizations the community was relying upon for immediate assistance to individuals. The loan program allows non-profits to get the help they need to stay open and focused on their mission.

The Foundation also allows individuals to work through them to serve the community. “The funds we make available are because of incredibly generous individuals and families. We’re just helping to grant those dollars back into the community,” said Gilliam. “Think of it this way: instead of one person writing a $50 check to help, we’re working with 50 individuals writing $50 checks – and the impact can be much greater. A larger impact has huge ramifications in a crisis. You may feel paralyzed about what to do. The Foundation makes it possible for you to help by connecting generous donors with the most important causes.” 

School Food Deliveries

“We did a lunch pick-up where students could get five days of breakfasts and lunches,” said Dr. Philhower. “For families that weren’t as mobile, we would personally deliver the meals to their homes.” The district also worked to ensure students were prepared for any future virtual learning in the event of a second wave of COVID-19. Students already have access to computers as part of their regular school program, but families without reliable internet were able to borrow portable Wi-Fi devices to ensure their students could keep up with classmates. The district continues to keep families up-to-date on COVID policies and programs on their dedicated COVID-19 Information page.

Non-Profit Collaboration

Organizations have taken their core mission to heart and acted like First Responders during the COVID-19 crisis. “They’ve stepped up to extraordinary lengths and taken on roles they weren’t occupying previously,” said Tamara Brinkman. “Amigos started working with Gateway to do food distribution to our Latino community. There’s a language barrier, so some members of that community may avoid coming to food distribution pick-ups. This was a great partnering of organizations to solve an immediate need. Gateway also set up a program to deliver meal boxes to senior citizens who were unable to get out to distribution locations. This was a need in pre-COVID-19 times, but it became a greater need when they were identified as a high-risk group and asked to avoid crowds. Organizations have shifted to find new ways to connect to people.”

A Final Message to the Reader

We gave each Wayne County community leader we spoke with a chance to send a direct message to the public about community needs, ways our readers can contribute, or where they see Wayne County going from here. This is what they had to say.

“Because of the economic and pandemic situation, local college graduates that would have normally found jobs by now and started their careers are struggling – and at risk of leaving Wayne County to seek opportunity elsewhere. One thing we’d like to encourage local businesses to do is set up internships for students and recent graduates.”

Melissa Vance, President/CEO, Wayne County Area Chamber of Commerce

“Kids are more resilient than we give them credit for, and they bounce back better than adults. Our teachers and staff are working incredibly hard to accommodate all the changes and ensure everyone is safe. Seeing the students on campus makes us feel better and gives us a purpose for all the things we’re doing.”

George Philhower, Ph.D, Superintendent, Western Wayne Schools

“We all have risks. We’re all vulnerable. Organizations have tried to do more collaboration to support the community and that’s how we’ll succeed as a community in the long run. We can’t exist in silos. We need everyone working together to make this a community where people can be successful – and where people want to live.”

Tamara Brinkman, President, United Way of Whitewater Valley

“We want businesses to realize they have someone here to help all the time – good times, bad times, we’re here to support them no matter what they need.”

Beth Newton, Executive Director, Richmond Innovation Center

“A crisis gives you an opportunity to see things differently. My hunch is that many organizations will be changing their philosophy and engagement as a result of being forced to see things differently and see new opportunities to serve the community. I think we’ll see a lot of innovation. There’s what’s going to be exciting: seeing how we build back up.”

Rebecca Gilliam, Executive Director of the Wayne County Foundation

“I’m very impressed with the collaboration I’ve seen from the EDC, Chamber, Foundation, Tourism, local government, and more entities that have come together to meet regularly to establish programs that support our community.”

Valerie Shaffer, President, Economic Development Corporation of Wayne County

Ways to Help

Feeling inspired? Here are some simple ways you can make a difference in Wayne County and our COVID-19 response:

  • Dine out if you’re able. Support small restaurants. Restaurant Week is October 17-25.
  • Order take out if you don’t want to risk a crowd.
  • Purchase gift certificates from your favorite local restaurants and retailers as holiday gifts.
  • Shop locally. Avoid the temptation of Amazon. Many local stores are adopting online shopping, so sometimes you don’t need to leave your home to shop locally.
  • Offer internships to recent graduates. It’s a great way to provide experience and augment your team.
  • Be patient with your kids’ teachers and school staff. They’re juggling a lot and working to keep your kids safe.
  • Respect businesses’ safety rules – #WearItWayneCounty so, #maskupHoosiers!

Stay connected with Forward Wayne County by joining our Newsletter or by following us on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn! Also, be sure to use the hashtag #forwardINwayne when sharing how you are forwarding our community every day!

-Article provided by Jessica Shrout with Circle Three Branding-

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