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TAP 11 | Chamber Of Commerce

 

Local small businesses make up a significant part of the nation’s economy, yet they are among the worst-hit by the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever, local chambers of commerce need to step up, be the voice of the business community, and be able to support local businesses when times are at its toughest. Leading the way in this regard is the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce, which views itself not only as a chamber of commerce but, more importantly, as a community organization. It provides such services as being an information resource, advocating for local small businesses and conducting workforce development programs. Chamber President and CEO Frank Castella, Jr. joins Brian Powers on the show to showcase some of the progress the chamber has made towards this end.

Listen to the podcast here:

How The Chamber Of Commerce Is Helping During The COVID-19 Crisis With Frank Castella, Jr.

Our guest is Frank Castella Jr. He’s the President and CEO of the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce. We’re glad to have you with us.

Brian, thanks for having me.

I’m glad you were able to join us. I wanted to have you on and talk a little bit about what you guys are seeing from the Chamber. You’ve become a great resource. We’re proud members and sponsors. We wanted to give the opportunity to tell our audience and our clients what’s going on at the Chamber, what you are doing during this COVID-19 pandemic.

It isn’t business as usual. We know most people are working at home and every day the news cycle changes drastically. The information that’s coming down from our elected officials and from the government is changing very rapidly. Early on in this crisis, the Chamber along with several other economic development partners throughout the Hudson Valley recognized that this was not sustainable. All of us are individually sending out communications, some of which were not exactly accurate. We were all taking our communications teams, pivoting, and becoming newsroom. We thought there needs to be one single source of information coming out to our constituents. We had a lot of crossover between Dutchess Tourism and the Council of Industry and the Women’s Enterprise Development Center, and Think Dutchess, all these organizations we’re sending out notifications and we were duplicating a lot of efforts.

We got together early on in this and said, “Let’s work together on it.” It’s going to be the only way we’re going to collab of this ahead and save our resources. What little resources we had in order to focus on the task at hand.” It’s worked out very well for us. It has been recognized around the state as a model to bring the news, if you will, to the business community working as one organization and partnership with everyone else because it’s we all contribute. While we may be using the Chambers Communications Department mostly and primarily for pushing out the news and a lot of people don’t even realize that’s where it’s coming from but it is. It starts with Chamber Communications Team doing the work. Everyone is contributing every day. We’ll send the information sources to our communications department and say, “This is something that needs to go in. It’s very important and it pertains to this industry, that industry or it could be tourism hospitality,” and the list goes on.

It worked out very well. It has streamlined the communication process. We’re under 10,000 emails. The open rates are very good. On an email, you might see 2% to 5% of an open rate on an email blast. The normal marketing strategist would tell you that it is a good open rate. We’re well into the 30% to 40% on our emails. It’s a growing list and it’s growing organically by people sharing it and adding to it. People send us the lists to their respective organizations all the time. They want to be on it, whether it’s another business organization or business group, an association of sorts, realtors’ groups. They all want to be a part of the information process. We’ve taken their lists and add them to it. There’s no cost to do it. We’re doing this service in conjunction with all of our partners at no cost to the community.

It’s not chamber members that are benefiting from this. It’s all businesses within the Hudson Valley region, predominantly Dutchess County, but we have a lot of regional organizations that are participating in this because the information is relative to anyone in the state of New York. There may be some local news in there, very little of it is local news or local initiatives. Most of it is statewide or federal issues that we’re tackling, particularly to the CARES Act and the Families First Act. We’re discussing it and promoting all the news, Q&As, and webinars based around that. It is a different time for us as an organization, we pivoted very quickly, and I know a lot of organizations that are looking to do the same. The biggest challenge is for everyone, whether you’re a not-for-profit organization or a business, where will your source of income be in the next 6, 8, 10 months, and changing your business to adapt. We hope to be a part of that.

It’s great what you guys are doing and calling all that information into one resource. It could be death by email, especially during a crazy time like this. You can get lost in the noise.

It’s such a great point. That’s what we were recognizing. We were all sending out emails within minutes of each other as soon as we got the information. I would get an email from one of the partners, another partner and then we would send an email out. It would become too much for people to navigate through when we were getting pushed aside as an individual organization. People were trying to source the information themselves. We found that this was a better way to go. It made much more sense. As soon as we did it early on, people were commenting to say, “This is so much better and easier. Thank you for doing this.” It still sticks. We have a Facebook Group that we started.

We had over 1,500 people that signed up for that group. It wasn’t even something we had to invite people to. They joined it because they saw the value of getting that information. It’s businesses and not-for-profits. That’s who’s a part of this. We went on and created a whole another host of initiatives to help promote organizations within our community business or nonprofit, whether it was Dutchess Delivers, for example. We created a Facebook Group for Dutchess Delivers, which promotes all specials and promotions, changes of hours, and service of all businesses within Dutchess County. If you are one of those institutions, feel free to post it on that group. That’s over 1,000 people within a very short period of time that have signed up for that and growing quickly. All these little efforts that we’re doing aside like air high fives. It sounds silly but having that point of connection, it did make us smile.

It’s definitely a different environment right now and it’s something that’s going to be a challenge to navigate. Click To Tweet

We all thought it was a little hokey, but we participated in it. We did it as our organization and all the other organizations that participated did it. It was something that felt good to do. Promoting our local heroes, honking for heroes. It was a time that we set aside and partnership with the MTA to everybody haunt their horns along with the trains and for our heroes. It’s a neat thing to do. It goes beyond these feel-good initiatives and wants to focus on the initiatives that are making a difference in helping our local communities. That’s where some of these other initiatives like Take-Out Tuesday and Farm-Stand Fridays can make a bigger impact drawing attention to some of these small businesses that are still operating.

You can take advantage of some of their great services, specials, and offers. Some businesses have done a tremendous job with pivoting their organizations. I look at Simply Gourmet, Mike Polasek did an amazing job with his restaurant, Cosimo’s another one, and Lola’s. They’re doing business while it’s not as busy as it normally would be and it’s a total way of doing business. They’re keeping some people on and paying staff through the process. Mike Polasek still has the same number of employees he would normally have. In fact, he was bringing them in earlier than he normally would because it’s not quite his catering and wedding season yet but we’re quickly approaching it. He normally wouldn’t have all his staff employees, so that’s a nice thing to hear.

He said that people are very generous with the tips and going above and beyond with accommodating and understanding. There are some great stories coming out of this, but a lot of challenging ones too. That’s most of the calls that we’re taking and feeling them for our elected officials. I constantly tell people whenever I do an interview like this, on a webinar, or radio to call us and we’ll help you as best we can to navigate your questions, concerns, be your advocate, your voice and your union. We will bring to the elected officials your voices of concern because every industry has its challenges. We all have very similar ones but most of them are the same, but there’s many of which that aren’t off. You might have a challenge, for example, bringing your business back online because you have an SLA permit and your questions around that SLA permit or it expired and so on.

We are trying to be that conduit for our elected officials. They need to focus on the challenges that they have and keeping our people safe and healthy. We will certainly bring them whatever voices of concern that we have from our constituents. We have been doing that every day. I’m in constant contact with all of our elected officials at all levels of government. We’ve got a good chain of communication going with our federal elected officials from Kirsten Gillibrand’s office to Sean Patrick Maloney and Antonio Delgado. Certainly, at the state level, Didi Barrett’s office and Senator Serino’s office, Kieran Lalor’s office, Peter Harckham’s office, Kevin Cahill, all of our representatives here in Dutchess County, Jonathan Jacobson is Assemblymember.

All of these individuals have been instrumental in assisting us with anything from unemployment insurance problem a business might have, the first time they’ve ever applied for unemployment insurance and have the ability to do so is through this crisis. The system has been so overwhelmed and a lot of people still don’t have an answer on whether or not they’ll be receiving it. The elected officials have done a great job of opening their offices up and the resources to these individuals to help them navigate the processes and have their voices heard.

You did a panel discussion with that group that you mentioned. That was a great resource. I feel like it could have gone on for an hour or more than you allowed it to. To have them there and for you to be able to open that door to people is big.

The webinars have been such an important part of this process. In partnership with all the partners at the Dutchess Business Notification Network, we’ve been producing webinars. We’ll have a forum with Ethan Allen Workforce Solutions, Ethan Allen HR, Ed Kowalski, who will be talking about the challenges of reopening your business from an HR perspective. We’ll bring in also with David Wise from Mackey Butts & Wise, and he’ll be talking about the HR legal side of bringing folks back to work. There’s been some new guidance from the SBA on the PPP loan.

There’s a lot of questions around that pertaining to whether or not they would allow the forgiveness if you were unable to bring some of your employees back because the employees, for whatever reason, could not come back or they refuse to come back. They wanted to stay on unemployment and there was some fear that the SBA would not allow forgiveness if you didn’t have and meet all the criteria. One of which to receive the forgiveness portion of the PPP loan is to bring all of your employees back on to payroll through the 30th of June. That guidance has now come out in the clarified lease. They are saying that they will not come out against you in the forgiveness portion. That’s good information talking about that in this webinar as well.

That’s a great resource to have both of them on. We’re headed towards that. I know there might be a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel but to be able to start to plan for reopening is big.

We hear this all day, every day. People want to be open at this point, especially with the weather getting warmer. If you driving on the road, sometimes you feel like it’s a normal day. I have to go into the office on an occasion and traffic is normal but ultimately we know it’s not. For the most part, people are not working but trying to obtain essential items like groceries, and so on. It’s a different environment and it’s something that’s going to be a challenge to navigate. We’re proud to be a part of the process at the Chamber. Our entire team has changed their roles and we’ve become very much a newsroom in a lot of ways, but also a resource network people to call us and help them navigate, whether they have questions on their SBA lending timing and so on. We’re taking those calls and we retrain one of our staff members on that.

TAP 11 | Chamber Of Commerce

Chamber Of Commerce: Whether you’re a not-for-profit organization or a business, your greatest challenge will be finding your source of income in the next few months and changing your business to adapt.

 

You’re telling people if somebody is coming to you and saying, “I’m not going to take PPP or take the EIDL loans,” What are you guys suggesting to them?

We are getting that response from people a lot when I suggest to them, “Have you used this resource?” They call us looking for resources, “We know all about the s the SBA Lending Programs that are available to us, the EIDL and the PPP, but we’re not going to participate in them. It’s too much aggravation and work.” If you’ve ever gone through the SBA process, that can be very cumbersome and time-consuming as it is in the general process. This process that they have put in place for the economic injury loan and the PPP is very streamlined, very straightforward, very fast in terms of being able to fill it out. In terms of funding, that’s another story. It has been slower on that side of things.

In other words, it’s quick and easy to fill the application out. It’s very painless, very little information upfront but it takes a while for them to fund it. My recommendation to organizations, whether you’re a business or nonprofit, fill it out because at least you know that that can be a backup plan for you whether you need it or not, you ship on that application in because you don’t know what the next 6 to 8 months could bring. What other changes might come along with respect to the policies and guidance on these programs. At some point, I’m not saying they will, but they may come back and say, “This is taking longer than we had thought to bring back the economy. We’re going to extend some deadlines.” They may push it off the two-year deadline for payment to four years. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You might as well have it there as a resource to you. You don’t have to take the funds. You can always refuse them when it comes time.

You say 6 to 8 weeks. Sometimes we don’t know what’s going on 6 to 8 days. Be prepared. Have that as a backup and we’ve been telling our clients the same thing even if you’re not meeting it right now, you never know.

Bringing access to our elected officials to the business community is important. That’s something that we’re dealing with a lot. We were talking about people wanting to get back to work. They’re antsy. It’s totally understandable. A lot of, if not all businesses, don’t have income coming in and everybody wants to be essential. We’re working with our elected officials on bringing people back to work. That’s to be a part of the governor’s committee, where he has brought 116 individuals from throughout the state of New York to be a part of a committee to reopen the state. There’s very little representation I would say if at all from small business. Quite frankly, that’s not fair to us as small business people.

I look at our organization as a small business organization even though a not-for-profit, we have to turn a profit in order to pick payroll. Ultimately, at the end of the day, we’re very much a small business. I have a small business background. It would make sense to have the voice of small business a part of that. We have asked to be a part of it although we have the chain of communication and we have been feeding as much information as we can for the reopen to our elected officials and giving them guidance on what we think is realistic. The question becomes whether or not they’re listening to our voices. We want to make sure that we are being heard and that they understand that there are certain industries like the landscape industry that can get brought back very quickly in the first round and not be pushed down the cycle.

We know the weather is getting warm. We need to maintain and make sure that these industries are heard. We’re focusing on each and every one of these industries that can do it safely, come back to work safely. That’s an important point to note and we are focused on going down through those industries and having those conversations to make sure that we’re aware of them. People might not think jewelry is not essential. I talked to jewelers all the time about this. You’re in peak season for that. It’s wedding season and engagements. This is a busy time for them and to be turning away revenue is so challenging to say no to a customer. Why can’t they do curbside pickup? Why can’t they allow one person in the store at a time? At least get them up and going and started following the CDC guidelines in a safe manner. All of this is achievable whether or not the governor’s office is listening to us. We hope so. We know we have the chain of communication and they’re telling us they’re hearing us but we will see once the determination is made here.

You always play that advocate role for membership and for business. It’s needed more now than ever. You’re doing a great job. Often the smaller businesses can get forgotten. Take politics aside the governor’s office can only handle so much. They need someone reminding them that, “There are businesses down here that need help and they want to come back.”

Before we got started, I was mentioning a survey that we pushed out through the network. We had well over 500 responses to that survey, which is a very good response rate. At the same token, people needed to have their voices heard in this. We needed to know from them, “What are your needs at this moment in time?” That survey is still up because it’s still pertinent. The questions are still valid and we have people filling it out multiple times during the course of the cycle. It’s great to hear from them because now we know that their needs have changed. The majority of those that filled it out, 67% of which were small businesses under five employees. They’ve also told us that 75% to 100% of their income has been lost.

It is a dire problem that we have. The challenge that we will have bringing them back to work goes beyond, the certainly foremost is the safety of all their employees, their customers, and society but it goes well beyond that. Are they going to have the needs in order to come back to work? Especially with many of those of which we don’t have a backup source like the PPP or EIDL Loans. There’s a lot of scenarios with that. A lot of people I spoke to that started and they weren’t eligible for those programs. They don’t have a track record and a history. They may have been doing well in those few months so we’re looking at possibly some other funding sources for those individuals. We’re working on that to be determined.

All these challenges need to be addressed and you’re going to hear a lot of single stories here and there that people were in unique situations and the businesses, unfortunately, may not be able to reopen. That’s what we need to navigate. That’s why they need the resources of what we’re providing, whether they’re a member or a nonmember of the Chamber, they’re still a member of our business community. They need to know that they’re valued as a small business. They need the support so we’re going to be here for them.

There's no other ultimate single source of local business than your chamber directory. Utilize it. Click To Tweet

One thing I did know that the Chamber did, but I didn’t know it to this extent. You guys work with a lot of students. You had mentioned something that you still have someone come in to help students have a place to have access to food if they need it. Explain a little bit more about that. I learned something new every day.

We have a lot of workforce development programs at the Chamber. Several of which deal with some youth but adults as well. We can be a warming center in the winter. We can be a source for food and nutrition for many while we predominantly focused on education and we sometimes use the food like a carrot to get them in so that way we can have a conversation with them and also get them engaged in some of the programming that we offer. It’s become more serious and that they don’t have school to go to for food and nutrition. They may not feel they want to go to the homeless shelter or the soup kitchen to get food because they don’t want to put themselves into the class and category as homeless, even though they may be. They want to keep their sense of pride.

Normally they would come in, they would see us, and that would be their source of food. We’ve tried to maintain that stability for them throughout the process. We have a rotation where our staff is going into the office. We’re getting food and making it available for some of these individuals to bring home and/or come in and grab something and go for themselves. A lot of these individuals are still essential workers too. We have a lot of employment programs where these essential workers are being called in your grocery store clerks and whether the person who’s going out and gathering the shopping carts or they’re a cashier, they still need to eat lunch.

Oftentimes these individuals are scraping by with a little bit of income they have. It affords them their transportation to and from work and maybe a daycare for a child that might help them with assistance for that. If we can be their source of lunch for them, we will. It’s not a big part of what we do, but it is a part of what we do and it’s an important part. We have had many people that have made donations to us for food and the financial contributions to us so we can purchase food. It is something that we are still providing throughout this time. We’ll continue to do until we can’t do it anymore.

Our Workforce Development Program continues. We’re still doing virtual events, educational seminars, and learning for our students, helping them to hopefully achieve credentialing at some point and become gainfully employed through the process. That’s an aspect of what we do at the Chamber of Commerce and its programming that is funded through a variety of different sources, whether it’s federal dollars that tripled down to us. It could be state dollars, county dollars are an important program that we have for workforce development. These programs continue and we need to continue to provide them because we are a resource for these individuals on a daily basis.

That’s a credit to you and your staff. It would’ve been easy to say, “We can’t do this right now. We’ve got a lot of other things going on,” but you didn’t because it is integral and it is an important and a big part of what you do.

The organization is very much a community organization. I say this frequently. We’re more than the Chamber of Commerce. We always have been while I know we won’t look the same at the end of this, everyone’s organizations will look quite differently at the end of this crisis. We are very much community organization and resource and we will continue that model. We may have been foremost to Chamber of Commerce, where we are the union and voice to our business community. The foundation and the work foundation does on education and continuing education is very important. The work that we do in workforce development is extremely important to take people that have challenges in their life. They have barriers and breaking those barriers down and working with them to become gainfully employed. Get them to a point in their life where they feel they have a sense of self-control, they have self-confidence, and they have a value of self-worth. That all plays into this and the type of case management work that we do to help them become gainfully employed and stay in a stable position and grow as an individual.

I’m glad we were able to talk a little bit about that. It is something that a good majority of people know what the Chamber is about and dodge, but I don’t think that comes to the forefront all the time. It’s good to promote it.

It certainly is and the work of the foundation is going to be hit the hardest by this. It’s an organization that may not pull to your heartstrings when you’re compelled to give and make a donation. What I mean by that is we’re not the American Heart Association. We’re not the Alzheimer’s Association. We’re not a Food Bank. The foundation itself depends on the support of our sponsors, our members, and donations from them in order to keep it afloat in a time when there is less money to go around for all organizations. We will continue to offer the services that we do and provide Leadership Dutchess and youth leadership. We will provide scholarship programming and we’re still working on our scholarship breakfast. We still have money in our scholarship funds to give out. That’s already been raised, we’re due to give that act to the community. That’s what the money was raised for.

We will do that. We will plan to pivot and change the foundation accordingly as well and to meet the needs of the community because the needs are going to change. What we were focused on executive leadership before, Leadership Dutchess, and youth leadership, we need to change some of our programming to help small business. We may look at sources in the future to do that. It’s all going to be changing. Everyone’s respective businesses are changing. We’re going through the same challenges. Small businesses are, I mentioned that in the beginning. We had to make some very difficult decisions very early on in this crisis. If we were going to maintain at any level, we needed to downsize. We had to go through that very early and I hope that we don’t have to do that again and we can maintain. Hopefully, continue to maintain the supports that we’re offering and do more.

TAP 11 | Chamber Of Commerce

Chamber Of Commerce: The Chamber of Commerce has been doing a number of initiatives geared at drawing attention to local small businesses that are still operating right now.

 

It’s a huge resource. As a firm, we’re behind you and happy to help. We appreciate everything you have done. I know that there are a plethora of resources on the website. Give us that and a quick highlight of what’s on there and what people can find.

There are two websites at play here. One is our Chamber website and I always tell people, put in Dutchess Chamber into Google. It’s the easiest way to remember it because if you don’t have a pen handy, you’re never going to get this right. Half of the time, when they do have a pen that they don’t get it right. It’s DCRCOC.org, and the other is the DutchessBNN.com website. It is a site that was developed through the partnership that we’ve talked about. All the regional partners for economic development coming together to develop this website where we have resources for employers and employees.

When I say employers, again that’s not-for-profit and for-profits businesses. It focuses on Q&As, anything from defining the CARES Act and the Families First Act. It’s looking at what the sick leave programs are now and the changes to it, and all these scenarios that your businesses have been put in because there are many. You may have let an employee go. You hired them back, you’re trying to figure out what to calculate and what not to calculate. A lot of those answers are right there on the website. It gets into the minutia of details and the Q&A sections.

Those resources are there and available to you. We send out a daily email blast as part of that. If you’re not getting those emails, you’re going to want to sign up for them because they are widely open and used. It’s a great resource. We find that about 12% of those are being forwarded, which is interesting. People were forwarding onto somebody and say, “Did you see this?” They point to other resources within it. You can do that on DutchessBNN.com to sign up for those emails. The Chamber website itself has additional resources aside from the COVID crisis emails and notifications that are going out. I say it all the time that there’s no other source of local businesses that’s better than your local Chamber of Commerce.

That goes for any Chambers, not just ours but any Chamber of Commerce will have a source of local businesses for you. You can go into Google and say, “Where do I get this? Where do I get that?” Nine times out of ten, it’s a paid advertisement that’s coming from somebody out of the area. It’s difficult to navigate. When you go to a Chamber’s website and you go to a Chambers directory, you’d know you’re getting a local organization and a local business to support and we continuously say, “Think local first. Now more than ever, we need you.”

We need to remind people that. The next time, if you need to place an order for office supplies or you need to buy whatever it is for your family, friends, or gift to support that local entity. When you need them, they’re going to be there for you. If you need sponsorship, if you need an ad and your children’s play journal or their cheerleader and they’re going on a trip, whatever it might be, that local business is going to write you that check. It isn’t going to be a big-box store nor Amazon.com. It’s going to be that local organization. You’re going to go looking for it and we need them. We need that to sustain them even if it’s the smallest of items, a simple battery, go to your local hardware store or pharmacy to purchase that item.

Try not to do it online. We continue to remind people of that. Utilize the Chamber directory for that purpose. There’s no other ultimate single source of local business than your Chamber directory. It doesn’t have every business in your community, because not every business is a member and at least is a very concentrated large source for that matter. One thousand four hundred organizations that are local organizations that you can now purchase products and services from. They’re not separated into essential or not essential, but there are certain businesses that are open during this time. I encourage you to look them up and make a call.

There are some organizations that have been created through this process. You might be surprised if they’re essential or surprised to hear some of the retailers that we’re able to maintain and get essential waivers through Empire State Development and keep their businesses essential through this process because they provided services and a lot of services to the first-line responders. Our first responders are on their feet most of the day that they’re working. They need to have good quality footwear.

For that fact, the stores are still open, providing those services and Fleet Feet is a perfect example of that. Kim Caruso is doing a great job and she maintained the curbside pickup as she should in this process. That’s important to know but if you need something, please look at the business directory. That’s a great message to have. Think local first and you’re supporting your next-door neighbor, a coworker, and all those right here in our community. We love this place. It’s the best place to live, work, play and stay. I say it all the time and we want to keep it that way.

That’s a good point. As you said, “You need a resource to go to for finding local businesses.” That’s one of the best. Check it out. I appreciate the time. Did we miss anything?

Support your local businesses. In times of dire need, they are the ones that will be there for you. Click To Tweet

I can go on and on as I did a couple of times here but more than anything, I want to thank you and JGS for your continued support. Its organizations like yours that enable us to do what we do enable other community organizations beyond the Chamber. Many non-for-profits that you contribute to and volunteer for. I know you’re on committees for Think Dutchess Alliance for Business. Economic development is paramount, it’s so important that you stay involved in that, and that’s a focus of your attention. To anybody that’s not involved in their community, get involved in some of these organizations. Without your support, whether it’s financial or your volunteerism, we wouldn’t survive. We wouldn’t be there as a resource to all of you and support those organizations like JGS that are supporting all of you through this process.

I appreciate that. That’s another good point is to now more than ever, we’re going to need people to volunteer and roll up their sleeves and give their time because it’s going to be more important than it’s ever been before.

Thanks for the opportunity, Brian. I appreciate it.

Frank, thank you very much. We’ll talk to you soon.

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