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Community response to COVID-19 — Greater Fergus Falls

Key takeaways

  • Form a team from across organizational sectors in your community to respond to a crisis
  • Gather business information systematically and consistently; act with urgency
  • Communicate regularly, clearly, and broadly

Deepening local business relationships helps retailers survive — and thrive — during pandemic

Greater Fergus Fall business gift certificates
Greater Fergus Falls's local coupon campaign called Project Two-Fold.

Before Minnesota Governor Tim Walz declared a statewide emergency in response to COVID-19, Greater Fergus Falls (GFF) had already hit the ground running to support local businesses during the pandemic. GFF started by assisting Lake Region Hospital, a major local employer, with securing personal protective equipment (PPE) from area suppliers. The organization identified and fostered relationships with local manufacturers, like Excel Plastics and Shoretex Fabric, to provide the needed equipment. Previously, neither company manufactured facemasks or face shields, but both successfully — and quickly — retooled to begin production for local distribution.

GFF was early to identify the need for a coordinated community response to COVID-19. A critical step was identifying local business needs that arose from the sudden onset of the pandemic. To accomplish this, GFF partnered with West Central Initiative Foundation, Otter Tail County and the Fergus Falls Area Chamber of Commerce to conduct a survey of area businesses. Survey results showed that access to capital to cover operating expenses was a critical concern for businesses. GFF took action to address this concern by:

  • Using social media, webinars and phone calls to provide one-on-one assistance for 250 area businesses related to federal assistance (e.g., Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and other programs).
  • Hosting roundtable discussions with area businesses, bankers and agencies on programs.
  • Partnering to develop an additional community fund for businesses not eligible for federal funding.

While doing so, other needs emerged in the community that resulted in the following response by GFF:

  • Providing weekly updates of business operating hours on GFF’s website.
  • Creating a Facebook group that functions as a job portal for area businesses.
  • Offering training sessions for area businesses on topics relevant to business continuity during the pandemic.
  • Transitioning regular business training workshops into reopening preparedness workshops on Zoom.
  • Creating a COVID-19 resource page for area businesses.
  • Hosting community Q&A discussions on Facebook with the chief of police and chamber of commerce.
  • Coordinating with local eateries about the acquisition and placement of outside dining equipment by the city.
  • Hosting a Google blitz with Visit Fergus Falls, downtown council, and the local chamber of commerce to boost number of online reviews for area businesses.
  • Communicating with state and federal representatives to discuss how rural effects of COVID-19 are different from urban effects.

Campaign success story

Business continuity is a critical concern for the Fergus Falls region. GFF initiated a local campaign called Project Two-Fold to support the continuity of businesses impacted by the executive order to close.  Project Two-Fold included gift certificates for a haircut, as well as a movie and bowling pass for area families in need. Critical to the program’s success was its partnership with the local school district. The school district provided a list of approximately 469 students in need. GFF then donated $2,000 of seed money to the campaign fund and asked the community to match it.

The community responded resoundingly, and nearly $17,000 was raised. For those involved in the effort, it was emotionally moving; businesses like salons were able to pay one month’s rent, thanks to coupons purchased for 469 haircuts.

According to GFF leaders, the most important aspect of this work has been deepening relationships with both businesses in the community and other nonprofit partners. GFF’s proactive approach ensured consistent lines of communication with all partners to support a shared goal and local businesses in not only surviving but also thriving during COVID-19.

Who can you follow up with for more information about this project?

Annie Deckert, executive director, Greater Fergus Falls, annie@greaterfergusfalls.com

Author(s)

Rani Bhattacharyya, community economics educator, University of Minnesota Extension

Reviewed in 2020

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