As federal assistance to small business stalls, the Ashland Chamber of Commerce designs buy-local programs to support struggling stores.
Drew Gibbs, who runs Winchester Inn, Alchemy Restaurant and Smithfields Restaurant in Ashland, was tired of waiting for the government to step in.
The initial loan from the Paycheck Protection Program was enough to keep his business afloat and pay his employees in the short term. But after the initial loan, no help came.
“We used the loans to pay our people and that was a really great feeling, but the problem was you only had eight weeks to spend the money. The program was designed very poorly,” says Gibbs.
Downtown Ashland. Photo: Jason Kaplan
Gibbs reached out to Dana Preston, membership and business development director at the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, with an idea that would eventually become the Love Ashland Local Campaign. The initiative is designed to encourage people to shop at local businesses.
Customers who purchase from local vendors can text their receipts to a monitored phone number. They are then entered into drawings for prizes and can also converse with a person on the other end of the line and receive a real-live “thank you” for their support.
The program has helped create a community of “local champions and new residents,” says Preston. It has also helped connect local businesses to other resources provided by the chamber, including help setting up online stores and making social media kits.
The chamber’s actions reflect a new harsh reality. In the absence of federal action communities must increasingly look after their own.
A pedestiran crosses a public fountian station in downtown Ashland. Photo: Jason Kaplan
The Love Ashland Local Campaign operates through the chamber’s existing small business website, ShopAshlandOregon.com. The site provides local businesses a convening space to sell food and products online.
"We are able to get the best of both worlds,” says Preston. “We support local businesses and are able to meet customers where they’re at, comfort-wise. And the community has really rolled up its sleeves to help.”
More customers than ever purchase products online. By buying through the website, customers avoid using third-party sites that take a cut of vendors’ profits.
Preston says programs like Love Ashland Local, which can help introduce small businesses to online sales, are vital. She has been working to increase the presence of local shops online.
For businesses that do not have a website, Preston distributes postcards around town to let locals know about the buy-local effort.
Cars drive past Lithia Park in Ashland. Photo: Jason Kaplan
According to Preston, there has been “continuing momentum” for the program. The local community wants to support local businesses, she says.
Shops have seen an increase in local buyers since the campaign’s beginning, and while it is difficult to say if the increase is only because of holiday shopping, it has been welcome.
Much of Ashland’s tourism crowd has not materialized as in years past. The city has been particularly hard-hit by the decline in tourism. This year’s wildfires contributed to the drop in visitors in what was already a diminished tourist season.
Even if more federal funding comes, small businesses may still depend on community efforts. According to data from the Small Business Administration, approximately one-third of the $7 billion given to Oregon businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program went to sixteen large companies, including McMenamins, Old Spaghetti Factory and Shari's Restaurant.
“Communities now have a big charge,” says Preston. “Their support is more important now than it has ever been.”
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