There is a pamphlet some small businesses include with their monthly invoices that reads, “Please pay us, so we can pay him, so he can pay her, so she can pay them, so they can pay you.”
Unfortunately, it is often included only half in jest.
Cash flow is the lifeblood of small business — even a short disruption can collapse payroll and from there the upstream supply chain grinds to a halt. “We can’t pay him, so he can’t pay her, so she can’t pay them, so they can’t pay you.”
It is tomfoolery to think “we’re all going to come out of this okay.” Everyone will not. After clinical concerns have given way, economic disruption will ruin many, including some of your friends, neighbors and possibly you. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that, after 2008, getting a small business loan to start a business became largely impossible. For the most part, banks only loan money to a small business after the small business can prove it doesn’t actually need the money to open — the loan is simply a financial tool to enable better cash flow and future expansion.
Given the difficulty of starting a business with borrowed money, what do starry-eyed entrepreneurs do? They assign their home as collateral. Maybe their 401k or IRA. Such are their dreams and confidence that they bet their future. And when the business folds, so folds their future.
This is not to say many small businesses won’t survive. Actually, some will thrive. Professional services that bill by the hour will continue with simple inconveniences. Online retailers will be fine. Services classified as essential will continue, albeit at a slower pace.
Sadly, however, Charleston has a uniquely fragile economy in terms of shutdown. Tourism has been crushed and all that goes with it — hotels, tours, attractions, restaurants, retail shopping, museums, the performing arts … the list goes on. Retail shops are reopening, but badly in need of your patronage.
Responding on behalf of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Chris Campbell said, “The steep and sudden decline in travel generated a virtual shutdown of the tourism economy. The current situation surpasses any crisis our industry has faced in modern times — losses in travel and hospitality for our region are projected to exceed $1 billion for the first two months of the pandemic alone.
“Clearly outlined timelines and parameters around re-opening are integral, but rebuilding the workforce is going to be key since so many businesses had to close their doors and furlough a majority of their employees.”
Another powerful engine for the local economy is shipping; our ports are some of the busiest and best in the nation and their business has taken a sharp downturn. Yes, the professionals working the waters and waterfront are ready, but supply chains have been disrupted. Imports are a fraction of the norm and many exporters have been forced to close their manufacturing facilities.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of the coronavirus situation is the uncertainty.
“The sooner the country can get back to work the better,” said Miles Barkley, a commercial real estate broker and principal with Lee & Associates Charleston. “I understand and advocate the need for health and safety, but damage to the economy has been swift. We need to help one another, learn from this experience and be stronger for it.”
The federal government is doing what it can, but only so many trillions of dollars can be conjured out of thin air and even then the distribution process must be orderly … which in the case of the federal government means confusing and difficult. Small businesses and sole proprietors without access to expert bookkeepers and bankers have a tough row to hoe, especially since the lion’s share of the available funds is going to “small businesses” worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
According to LendingTree.com, eight in ten small business owners have “no idea” where to get emergency funding and only 71 percent of small business owners believe they will recover. One of the major concerns is whether the federal assistance will help in the long haul.
“Even small businesses carry a lot of necessary overhead,” said Debbie Fisher of Handsome Properties. “If we’re going to experience a rapid recovery, the government is going to need to help with office rent/mortgage payments, insurance and property taxes for the time our business were ordered to shut down. Our company is going to come through this fine, but without that kind of support we’ll be playing catch-up for a while.”
For an economy like Charleston’s to recover, residents are going to need to work together. Yes, Amazon will deliver to your door and perhaps save you some money, but they will never sponsor your children’s little league team, bring you a home-cooked meal when you’re sick or dance at your daughter’s wedding.
These are the things that make up a community — they are the essence of life.
So shop 100 percent local. If you’re financially able, eat takeout — and return to our restaurants once the “all clear” is sounded. Splurge on things you may not ordinarily treat yourself to. Over-tip your servers. Spend money on the work of local artists. Give to non-profits and churches.
There are a lot of hurting people in the Lowcountry and many Mercury readers have the financial resources to make a huge difference.
We hope you will.