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A new hand on deck to offer assistance to small businesses

With COVID-19 hitting the bottom line, SBDC adds disaster relief coordinator
Southwest Colorado Small Business Development Center and its staff, from left, Kiki Hooton, disaster relief coordinator; Mary Shepherd, executive director; and Hannah Birdsong Fetters, program director – are now located in the Fort Lewis College Center for Innovation in the Main Mall. Hooton recently joined the team to help small businesses deal with the economic stress stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The novel coronavirus might have thrown a wrench into many businesses in 2020, but the Southwest Colorado Small Business Development Center is working to bolster its capacity to help them.

Through funding from the CARES Act, the Southwest Colorado SBDC has hired an extra hand devoted to helping businesses navigate the perilous rapids of owning a small business in the age of COVID-19.

Kiki Hooton, who has served as managing director with Local First, began work in July as the disaster relief coordinator at the local SBDC, now located at the Fort Lewis Center for Innovation in the Main Mall, 835 Main Ave.

“Some of the challenges we have heard from businesses is how to have difficult conversations with co-workers, staff or customers around varying levels of comfort with wearing masks; how to transition their business to an online platform; how to create engaging content or experiences for people without in-person interactions,” Hooton said.

Helping small businesses adjust their business model to survive COVID-19 and assisting them in dealing with state and local health orders regarding business operations has also kept Hooton busy.

“One of the most exciting parts of the position is the number of people pursuing new businesses at this time. It really speaks to the rural entrepreneurs in our community that despite events like COVID-19 and the 416 Fire, our people are resilient,” she said.

Hooton said she has been working to develop workshops, webinars and bringing in resources that can help small businesses address issues stemming from COVID-19.

“We are very fortunate that our region has seen a lot of activity despite COVID-19,” she said.

Hooton said the area’s remote location, low population and abundant outdoor opportunities helped blunt the economic impact of the pandemic.

Still, she said the SBDC expects to see greater need for its services in the fall and winter when tourism season slows and business owners have more time to address short- and long-term issues.

Mary Shepherd, executive director of the Southwest Colorado SBDC, said the center has been busy assisting small businesses with Paycheck Protection Program loans provided in the federal relief package – the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act – and with the U.S. Small Business Administration’s existing Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

“People are ready to think about their businesses again and look at their numbers and start to strategize on how they’re going to get through the fall in the winter,” Shepherd said.

Businesses will have to be flexible given the unknowns they will face heading into fall and winter, she said.

She noted many experts are wondering if there will be a second wave of the novel coronavirus with the colder weather, similar to flu season.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen. Will there be skiing this winter? This recovery process will be a marathon, not a sprint,” she said.

CARES Act funding guarantees funding for Hooton’s disaster relief coordinator’s position through March 2021, and Shepherd said she hopes money will be appropriated to keep the position through September. 2021.

Hooton will help develop a workshop for employees and frontline workers about having hard conversations with customers who bristle at wearing masks or object to other measures taken to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

She will also help Southwest SBDC develop a six-part series aimed at helping local small businesses increase their online sales and their presence on the internet.

The COVID-19 pandemic, Shepherd noted, is not the first crisis to hit Southwest Colorado.

“In the last five years, we’ve seen fires and river pollution and drought, so a lot of businesses are already carrying disaster debt. So, really working with businesses and trying to figure out a path forward and how to access funds. That’s a big one, right now,” Shepherd said.

parmijo@durangoherald.com

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