Saline Business Owners Discuss COVID-19 Challenges at Virtual Summit

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Dozens of small business owners and representatives joined local organizations for the Saline Virtual Business Summit Thursday afternoon.

The event was hosted by the Saline Community Recruitment and Retention Team - a group launched by the City of Saline, Saline Main Street, the Saline Area Chamber of Commerce and Saline Area Schools. The goal of the summit was for members of the team to gain a better understanding of what local businesses are struggling with during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to gain a better understanding of how the team can meet their needs.

Mayor Brian Marl, who in pre-COVID-19 times hosted both a small business and big business lunch annually at City Hall, opened the meeting.

"I understand these are very challenging and precarious times. We appreciate your resolve and tenacity and I want you to know that on behalf of myself and my city council colleagues and everyone here at The City of Saline, each and every one of you are valued and appreciated and we greatly respect everything you do for the Saline community," Marl said.

Most members of Saline City Council and new city manager Colleen O'Toole joined the Zoom call. They were joined by officials from Washtenaw County, Ann Arbor Spark and other organizations.

Marl handed the reins to consultant Diane Mukkala, who managed the exercise.  The business representatives and others split into four groups: Restaurants/food, retail and services, big businesses, and tech and startups.

Partiparents in the breakout groups were then asked questions about their greatest challenges during the pandemic, what help or guidance they'd like to see from the city, and what kind of help and what kind of assistance they'd like to see from the county and state.

Here's a sampling of the issues local businesses face:

  • Restaurant owners want to know if and when they can reopen their dining rooms. They also want to know what kinds of rules they're going to face. And they'd like the information in a timely fashion so they can prepare. 
  • Workforce was a common issue, especially for big businesses. Finding quality labor has been a challenge. Attendance has been a challenge, as well. For the restaurants, scaling up in a hurry could be a challenge. One restaurant recently went from 56 employees to six employees. If restaurants are told they can re-open their dining rooms to a certain level next week, will their employees be ready? A service industry owner said he was making plans to grow his business, but wasn't sure he was going to be able to find the labor to support the growth. Several business owners said the increased unemployment benefits have made it difficult to entice employees to return to the workforce.
  • For retail businesses, getting customers in the door has been challenging. 
  • Reports from two groups suggested there needs to be more cooperation and more commitment from local businesses to "buy local" and support each other.

Here's a sampling of what was said about the kind of support businesses would like to see from the city:

  • The building department came up in a couple of groups. Businesses said the building department could streamline to make the task of meeting code easier. During the pandemic, perhaps some rules should be relaxed as businesses scramble to make social distancing space and meet other new mitigation requirements. Instead of returning to work to find a ticket for non-compliance, a business owner might prefer a phone call with an explanation.
  • Restaurant owners want the city to be ready with a plan when outdoor dining becomes more feasible in the spring.
  • Restaurant owners thought the city might be able to leverage its resources to provide bulk purchases for propane, firewood and other resources restaurants are using.
  • One restaurant owner suggested pushing out utility bill due dates until spring, when restaurants should be on better footing.
  • A retailer noted that downtown businesses are well represented by Saline Main Street and wondered if there should be resources for businesses in the other sections of town. The Chamber of Commerce does provide support for businesses throughout the greater Saline area. In the past, there was a west-side business group, but it hasn't been active in years. An east-side business advocacy group hasn't been active since 2018.
  • Big businesses see a need for public transportation.
  • Many businesses feel well supported by the city and by its emergency employees.
  • The downtown parking issue has not been settled.
  • Saline businesses could benefit from fiber internet.

Businesses were asked what support they want from state and county governments.

  • Restaurants say if the state keeps dining rooms closed, they should be reimbursed by the state.
  • From the big business group, there's a concern that the higher unemployment checks have made a tough labor market even tougher.
  • From the big business group, there's also concern the unemployment program is outdated. One business had to idle a few workers and several didn't receive benefits fro months.
  • From the big business group, there's concern that the state closures and mitigation efforts haven't been equally applied through businesses. 
  • From the big business group came the idea that businesses who support government edicts should be rewarded or reimbursed in some way.
  • There was also a concern raised about the amount of workers who come to work high on drugs.

Mayor Marl thanked everyone for participating and said the  Saline Community Recruitment and Retention Team would soon meet to determine what goals can be met in the short term and what might be done down the road.

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