West Shore Community College held a Zoom panel with local business managers and economic development leaders called “COVID in Our Community: Business Q&A” Thursday evening to discuss how the pandemic has impacted the local economy.

Though the attendance was small — five people tuned in — the moderator for the panel, Renee Snodgrass, said she hopes people will watch the video online. Snodgrass is the director of library services at the college.

She introduced the panel, then asked them to explain ways the pandemic had affected their work or community.

“We’ve all heard on the national news how businesses are struggling. My hope is that we can take on this huge issue and bring it to a local level by talking to experts and business owners in our own community,” Snodgrass said.

Stacie Bytwork, president of the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce, began by explaining how the chamber had switched to primarily advocacy work.

“We do a lot of advocacy work as a chamber for our region and obviously when the pandemic hit, that was in high gear. Looking back to March, we all pulled together to look at what we could do for our business community,” she said.

The chamber put together easy-to-read resources explaining the state requirements and searched for grants to help the businesses through the spring shut down.

She said the seasonal businesses had staffing issues in the beginning and many businesses were concerned about revenue streams during the closure.

“When this hit, everyone was inundated with so much information. What we did was compiled all that in an easy-read for our businesses,” she said. “We tried to be that No. 1 resource.”

While many sectors were impacted, she said the hospitality and service industries have had an especially difficult time.

“But I don’t want to make it gloom-and-doom because a lot of our business got creative with online orders, curbside and delivery... (doing) Facebook Lives to promote their products,” she said.

Snodgrass asked Bytwork if there were any businesses that did unexpectedly well.

Manistee was open during the busiest summer months, which Bytwork said attracted many customers for downtown retailers.

“A lot of our summer residents were staying longer or more permanently,” she said. “Also, some of our manufacturing pivoted to (making) PPE.”

And that was the theme of the panel — though there have been struggles, there were unexpected positive outcomes from the pandemic.

Jen Tooman, marketing and communications director of the Downtown Ludington Board, said she saw the same developments.

“We also saw that lengthened stay from our summer residents because they could work remotely, and their kids were going to school remotely,” Tooman said. “From the retail standpoint, from September to October, many businesses had record-breaking months.”

These were “silver linings.”

Downtown Ludington had four new stores open during the pandemic. Tooman said she saw these team up with established businesses for events and promotions.

“We call it ping-ponging — telling other people about the business next-door,” she said.

The community also supported the businesses.

“They came out in droves to support the businesses when they were shut down,” she said.

Tooman said they did two rounds of gift card promotions in the spring that totaled in $25,000 purchased through Downtown Ludington. Sponsors also donated money for incentive “Downtown Dollars.”

“The total was over $30,000 we were able to pour into Downtown Ludington,” she said. “There were some good things. We’re coming together as a community, and we’ll get through it.”

Downtown Ludington is made primarily of “mom-and-pop shops” of food service, retail and professional services — roughly 200 total. She said the sectors that were hit the hardest were food service and gyms.

“Not only being shut down now, again, but also being at only 50 percent (capacity) all summer,” she said. “Our bars and gyms that couldn’t be open for months saw the biggest hit there. Now, they are getting creative.”

Tooman said the retailers, like in Manistee, seemed to be doing better economically despite supply chain issues. Hotels saw dips in the earlier months, but had strong numbers July through October.

“(Retailers) had the online stores and were allowed to open,” she said. “It’s not affecting everyone the same way.”

Tooman said her job also changed. When events were canceled, the main focus became getting businesses through this period and looking at the upcoming months. A “creative solution” they came up with was a holiday gift-guide, available on the Downtown Ludington website.

“We were nervous about... what we would see in the spring if our businesses didn’t make enough to get through January, February and March, and now there’s another shutdown in place,” she said.

Jamie Adam, Ludington Bay Brewing Company sales and events manager, shared how the pandemic impacted the local brewery.

“Two days before St. Patrick’s Day we were forced to shut down,” she said. “It was tough. We shut down in March and had to switch from a full bar-restaurant to carry out. We weren’t used to putting everything in a package and sending it out the door.”

The restaurant part of the business had to adjust, especially the menu.

“You aren’t going to put salmon in a to-go container,” she said.

When Ludington Bay opened, there were several other restaurants that did not.

“That’s a huge loss,” she said.

But it did give the restaurant a boost in sales.

“It was still difficult,” she said. “People were waiting in line. People were coming from Chicago and across the state, and because they were on vacation, they thought they didn’t need to wear a mask.”

She said it was a constant battle getting people to wear masks until it was made mandatory by the state.

The brewery was normally open seven days a week, but with the additional stress for the employees, they decided to close on Tuesdays.

“We needed a mental health day,” she said. “It worked out for us. We still saw great numbers in June, July and August.”

Ludington Bay asked the city for a larger patio space when it was able to re-open, which added seating for 20 additional people.

Now that the weather is cooling, business is slowing, she said.

“There’s less traffic and it’s tough, and Sunday night they decided we’re done for another three weeks,” Adam said. “Overall, we will be closed for four months... of the year. That’s a long time, but we’ll get through it. There’s nothing you can do but adapt.”

Another major change for Ludington Bay was the halt of brewery distribution sales when the bars and restaurants closed.

“We weren’t selling kegs of beer... which meant we lost 35 to 45 percent of our distribution sales. That turned everything into package sales,” she said.

Like the retail stores, they’ve had demand and supply issues, including getting aluminum cans for the beer.

She said the launch of a new beer, Badger Blue, in May was a success.

“It blew up so much that we had supply chain issues,” she said.

Snodgrass asked Tyler Hillier, of Wagner Home and Outdoor, which does construction remodeling and lawn care in Ludington, if they had any issues finding supplies.

“When this whole pandemic started, we shut down. When we got going, because everyone else was shut down — lumber, nails and screws suppliers — prices skyrocketed,” he said. “Supplies are costing more money and taking longer to get to us, so that’s pushed jobs back.”

Other than the hurdle of getting supplies, Hillier said his industry is booming.

“We’ve been busier now that we ever have been,” he said. “People are staying home, thinking about the remodels they want to do to their house or yard work they want to get done.”

Those “snowbirds” who aren’t returning south are providing additional work, he said.

Online orders have also made a difference for the business.

“We go through Lowes, Home Depot, Carter Lumber. They’re doing the online orders and even delivering supplies to us so there’s minimal contact,” Hillier said. “The online helps a lot. We order the supplies we need for that one job, it’s delivered to us and we’re ready to work,” he said.

The panel also discussed improving morale, staffing shortages and the what it takes to shut down and reopen.

All four panelists said they hoped some of the changes like delivery and online ordering would stick around, even after the pandemic.

Snodgrass asked, in closing, what people could do to help the small businesses and local economy.

Hillier summarize their responses {—} “Keep us busy. Support local businesses. Stay safe.”

The full panel discussion video will be available on the West Shore Community College Facebook page and YouTube channel.