how can we help? how should we help?
This is my first blog post related to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. School buildings (K-12 and higher ed) closed a couple of weeks ago, forcing alternate methods for students and teachers to finish out the semester. Businesses are closed, some directly caused by the Safer at Home order from the state, others due to indirect action (i.e. employees staying home to care for kids and manage home-based schooling). Restaurant owners are coming up with creative ways to remain open (i.e. food delivery and pickup) and keep their employees working. While making a profit during this time may seem like an unrealistic goal, I’m sure many business owners would be happy to simply break even or perhaps just keep their losses to a minimum.
There is a lot of uncertainty out there. So of course business owners are keeping their eyes peeled for opportunities offered from governments to assist. As this week unfolded, the U.S. Congress was putting the final touches on a stimulus package. And while those details, along with programs from other organizations like SBA and WEDC are beyond the scope of this article, I want to focus on what the city of De Pere can do for its businesses.
As we think about ideas for ways we can help our businesses, we cannot lose sight of the question, “what should we do?” In various scenarios over the years, I hear people say things like, “well, if we give a business a grant, that keeps their doors open and their employees working, so it keeps money flowing in the economy, etc.” And while I tend to agree with that approach, it doesn’t answer the question, “where does the grant money come from?” Governments cannot give money to anyone without first taking that money out of someone’s pocket.
What makes this situation interesting is the resolution we passed unanimously at our last city council meeting on March 17, 2020, declaring a state of emergency in the city of De Pere. As in any resolution, you gotta read it carefully. This resolution includes provisions to grant significant power to our Mayor to make decisions for the city, then run those decisions by the council later. While this is highly unusual, it’s a decision based on the current state of affairs combined with the significant faith that the people of the city of De Pere have had in Mayor Mike Walsh over the past two decades. Simply put, we trust him.
So, to date, you may not have heard much from the city about helping businesses. But make no mistake, the mayor along with city staff and Definitely De Pere (our downtown business organization) have been banging heads to see what we can and should do. Based on an update sent to alderpersons at the end of the day yesterday, here’s what I’ll tell you.
You can expect a decision some time next week by Mayor Walsh to offer business loans from the city. I hesitate to give you details, because it’s not yet final, but I’ll say this much. There will have to be a maximum loan amount for each business. It will include a maximum amount of time to repay the loan, along with an initial period where no payments are required. And the loans will be low or zero interest.
To be clear, I’ve seen the actual numbers that the mayor and city staff are working on, I just don’t want to say anything concrete because it’s not yet cast in stone (and, as an alderperson, it won’t be my decision). So, where is the money coming from? We have a fund that we’ve used over the years for revolving loans tied to economic development. That program has significantly changed, but we still have a nice pot of money for those types of purposes. And I must also say that the reason we’re in this position in the first place is due to the excellent management of our city programs and budgets over the years by our mayor and city staff. We’ve made decisions to keep the city of De Pere not just in a good financial position, but in an excellent financial position. And here we are, using that healthy position to help our businesses and ultimately our 25,000 residents.
So if you’re a business owner, please be patient. I know that’s hard to hear, but help is on its way from your city leaders about as quickly as it can come.