Social distancing is the right thing to do at this time and protecting the health and safety of everyone in the community is always the top priority. Yet the negative ripple effect of the coronavirus on the local economy also has the potential to leave many families, local businesses and industry devastated. Someone recently asked me if it would be wise to continue with the TN Downtowns grant as it did not seem like a time to be celebrating the downtown. I countered that we all need to be championing our local businesses now more than ever.
Now is a time for collaboration. Motlow State, local governments, downtown groups, chambers of commerce, development agencies, and industrial boards from a five-county area, including Coffee, have begun stepping up to help businesses looking for direction and assistance in the face of the COVID-19 threat. This collaborative effort involves the sharing of information, resources, strategies, ideas, toolkits, and inspiration with each other, local businesses, and the greater community to send a clear message that we will get through this together. Motlow created a survey and database system to kickstart this collaborative effort. One survey is being distributed to community organizations and government agencies requesting they share creative strategies they have implemented to support local businesses, to share resources they have benefitted from, and to share ideas and inspiration they have seen successfully implemented elsewhere. An additional survey is being distributed to local businesses throughout the greater area requesting them to identify immediate needs and operational impacts that could be used to develop appropriate policy and program responses.
Just because some businesses have closed their doors, it does not mean that they have to close their business entirely. The coalition wants to help local business and industry to pivot during this critical time by giving them the tools and resources they need to implement enhanced, new, and creative strategies for operating under the “new normal.” Ditto for non-profits and community organizations. An additional benefit of the project is the ability to identify and pair organizational resources with other organizational needs creating a connection that may not otherwise been made.
The title of this column was inspired by my interactions with authors James and Deborah Fallows during my time in Greenville, South Carolina, while they were conducting research for their book “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.” The Fallows spent years traversing America visiting places that no one talks about in the national media. While the major media outlets have focused on the dysfunction of the major metros, the Fallows visited countless smaller cities and towns where things were by no means perfect, yet where “a new America is being built- one that is innovative, compromise-minded, optimistic, and working toward practical solutions to the problems of this age.” Their overall positive experience was summarized in the final chapter of the book detailing the foremost signs of civic success. The top three signs that the Fallows list? Divisive politics do not interfere, you can pick out the local patriots, and public-private partnerships are real. I vote we stop talking about what we think people have done wrong and start focusing on what people are doing right. According to TVA’s Economic Development Program Manager Melissa Halsell, “this is uncharted territory for us all; however, the communities who are able to embrace and roll with these rapidly-changing and disruptive times and who are willing to get out of comfort zones collaboratively and creatively to meet the challenges will come out of this crisis stronger than imagined today.”
What is the real benefit of the Community Collaborative project? County and city lines are being blurred as individuals and groups are already connecting in ways they never have before. The ideas being shared aren’t limited to our area either. One of my favorite survey entries came from the director of a local nonprofit in the healthcare sector in Tullahoma. She shared the example of a company in Columbia, TN, who have started a “Columbia Cares” delivery box subscription service. She heard about the program from a colleague in Lewis County. At least one civic group in Manchester is already discussing replicating the idea. “Coffee County Cares” is equally catchy, is it not? Another entry was made by an executive at Jack Daniels who disclosed that “Since we have closed all Marketing operations in Lynchburg we have offered rent relief to our retail partners who rent buildings that we own on the Lynchburg Town Square,” offering the explanation that “Most of these business are small local businesses that depend on Jack Daniel's tourism to survive.” Good to know, food for thought, and I commend Jack Daniels for this decision. Even if you do not belong to a community organization, I invite all readers to fill out the COVID-19 Community Response: Resources & Examples survey to share any positive ideas or inspiration you have seen successfully implemented to support the local economy and simply identify yourself as a community member. Remember, we are all in this together!
Businesses, community organizations, and members of the community interested in participating in the Community Collaborative may access the survey forms by contacting your local chamber or by visiting the website www.thecommunitycollab.com. To learn more about what key signs the Fallows believe indicate a city will succeed visit www.ourtownsbook.com.