Several Washougal agencies, organizations and leaders are coming together to help local businesses not only recover from the devastating financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, but thrive in the long-term.
“It’s not just business recovery that needs to be a community effort, but also a long-lasting commitment to supporting our neighbors by shopping locally, donating to local charities and becoming more involved in our communities,” Port of Camas-Washougal commissioner John Spencer said. “My belief and hope is that the shutdown gave this a boost. Our governments and business groups have a long history of supporting this and continually trying to find new ways to engage people.”
To that end, Lori Reed, owner of Reed Creative, a Washougal-based marketing and graphic design firm, is formulating a grassroots effort to create a marketing campaign that will promote businesses, organizations and tourism in Washougal.
“I think Lori Reed is doing the right thing — marketing is the key to all of it,” Spencer said. “Businesses, cities and charities all need to learn to better market themselves. While I supported the closure of the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association, one element it provided that we haven’t fully replaced is a unified marketing effort for the East County community. The Columbia River Economic Development Council will help take up some of that, but I think more needs to be done.”
Reed hopes to pitch her plan at an upcoming Washougal City Council meeting to request financial support. Her campaign would center round the slogan “ShougStrong” and could involve, depending on the level of funding, some combination of stickers, T-shirts, signage, videos, flyers, tote bags, promotional events, “parklets,” kiosks, and/or city maps.
“As a small business, we were impacted like everybody else by what’s going in,” Reed said. “We’re not helping our clients as much, so I started to wonder how we could help the community during the down time. I always keep my eyes open and ear to the ground to find out what other people are doing, and I kept hearing about a lot of great things, but they were happening in different siloes. I said, ‘Let’s pull together, because there’s strength in numbers.'”
Reed has collaborated with several community members, including Alex Yost, a Washougal city councilwoman and owner of the OurBar restaurant; Forest Dukes of Dukes Decals (the originator of the “ShougStrong” slogan); Amy and Dwight Hovland of PrintLab Northwest; Charline Wright of Columbia River Realty; and city of Washougal communications specialist Michele Loftus.
“I think one thing that will come up once we get that presentation from Lori Reed is the broader concept of a citywide campaign — that it’s not just about T-shirts, it’s not about getting people on the bandwagon, it’s also about awareness,” Yost said during a virtual workshop session on Monday, June 22. “Maybe a social media awareness campaign, or series of articles written up in the local publications, could say, ‘Do you need X project done? Did you know there are businesses in our industrial park that do that?’ to connect the dots for people a little bit. We’re not spending city money, but we’re promoting and lifting up the businesses which maybe don’t have that downtown storefront presence.”
The Washougal Business Association (WBA) has hosted several Zoom meetings to provide forums for business owners to share their experiences, and promoted local companies through social media posts and owner interviews.
“The (Zoom meetings) have been helpful in the sharing that has taken place, and folks feel good about not being all alone,” WBA secretary Chuck Carpenter said. “The positive effects have been on morale, not a lot in increasing business. The most effective efforts seem to be in anticipating the phases and being prepared to do what’s necessary as things loosen up. We have met with Lori and will join in her effort. We believe strongly in community effort. We’re all in this together.”
Washougal council members have indicated that they would like to see some of the $495,000 that the city will be receiving from the state of Washington as part of the federal CARES Act be awarded to local businesses. City manager David Scott said that the best way to do so would be in the form of a grant program.
“I do believe that we should put some of it into the community … more like in the $20,000-or-less range,” Washougal Mayor Molly Coston said during a virtual workshop session held on June 22. “I think we can do some kind of marketing or messaging for that amount. However, it has to be solid, and really make a difference.”
“Your businesses are hurting right now, more than you know,” Washougal resident Martha Martin told city council members during a virtual meeting on June 22. “There are so many one- and two-person businesses in our community that didn’t qualify for paycheck protection program (PPP) loans, applied for everything else, but many of us – most of us – didn’t get anything. (We’re concerned about) the basic costs of keeping our businesses open — rent, keeping our licenses up to date. A grant process, even if it (involves) winners and losers, sometimes that’s what you have to do when times are tough, and people just need that assistance to get them through the hard times.”
The Port conducted a survey of local businesses in the spring to find out how the pandemic has impacted them. The survey generated 11 responses from owners of businesses in the Port’s industrial park and 32 replies from Camas- and Washougal-based business owners.
“In general, the community business owners are frustrated, which is totally understandable (considering the environment that they’re) operating in and what they’re dealing with,” Port business development manager Derek Jaeger said during a virtual commissioners meeting on Wednesday, June 17. “They are concerned about regulation, costs for mandating safety, cash-flow sustainability and when they can reopen, because they were hit pretty hard up front. They’re starting to look at alternative revenue streams because they were being impacted right away, and they still haven’t received the unemployment (benefits) that they applied for.”
In contrast, the vast majority of industrial park business owners indicated that the pandemic has had “no impact” on their operations.
“They haven’t been affected, or their operations are expanding,” Jaeger said. “Some of it is the dynamic of the type of industries; the industrial park businesses are probably more global-view in nature, and they’re more focused on the global economy. There is concern, and there are (industrial park) businesses being impacted, but there’s several that are growing as well.”
But while the community leaders will do everything they can to help the local businesses recover, they know that their fight isn’t close to over; in fact, it might be just beginning.
“My biggest concern going forward is that we may still be in an early phase of a very deep recession,” Spencer said. “One of the reasons the industrial sectors are still doing well is there may be a lagging effect of the economy that has yet to hit – I’ll be interested in second-quarter reports coming out in July, and I’m waiting to see what happens in August/September after federal unemployment stimulus payments end at the end of July; I really hope congress finds a way to extend some benefits. We need to be planning for a long slog through this situation.”