More than a year after Kansas Governor Laura Kelly’s stay-at-home order expired, many businesses in the Greater Manhattan region still have a long way to go to return to pre-pandemic levels of operation. That’s why the Greater Manhattan Economic Partnership — composed of staff and volunteers from the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce and the Pottawatomie County Economic Development Corporation — are still actively in the trenches, helping area businesses recover every day.
Connecting Businesses to Recovery Resources
In 2020, GMEP staff members in both Riley and Pottawatomie counties were instrumental in helping local businesses access federal and state funding to stay open. This included partnering with the City of Manhattan to administer an emergency loan program that allocated $372,000 in economic development funds to a total of 84 local businesses to help them get through the early days of stay-at-home orders.
GMEP staff also worked with both county commissions to ensure CARES and community development block grant dollars reached private businesses to offset pandemic-related expenses and protect jobs, to the tune of $2.5 million in Riley and $920,000 in Pottawatomie counties.
In addition to financial assistance, MACC staff handed out nearly 2,000 masks to area businesses as they were reopening in the summer of 2020. These masks were purchased either by the chamber or donated by other area businesses.
PCEDC executive director Jack Allston said he also spent a lot of time in the early days of the pandemic helping hospitality industry businesses access the HIRE Fund, a state program to help restaurants, hotels and event spaces stay open during stay-at-home orders. Eight companies in Pottawatomie County ended up benefitting from this fund.
“Those early loans made such a difference in helping these businesses stay afloat,” Allston said. “The percentage of those loans allocated to our county was very high in comparison to our population. They were a lifesaver until other programs got online.”
Daryn Soldan, economic development director for the MACC, said in 2021 the team is still spending significant time helping businesses access new resources provided by Biden Administration programs, including the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
“Many restaurants haven’t been able to make it this far because they couldn’t endure the sustained interruption of business,” Soldan said of the RRF. “This will help those who are hanging on offset lost revenues and make strategic decisions about their future.”
Larie Schoap was the MACC board of directors chairperson in 2020. She noted that local businesses appreciated the efforts that Allston and George Kandt, MACC business retention and expansion manager, made to survey businesses about their COVID-related challenges. Together, they visited with 100 major employers during 2020, an effort that continues into 2021.
During these meetings, Allston and Kandt have looked for more ways economic development staff can support businesses, and they have gathered information about the current local economic climate. Allston recorded a video presentation of his 2020 findings, which is available on YouTube. Data that Kandt has collected during his visits was published earlier this year in the MACC’s 2021 Business Conditions Report. Kandt continues to meet with businesses and will update his report with new data.
“I don’t think that many of our businesses could have persevered through the challenges of this past year without the leadership of our staff and regional partners,” Schoap said.
Striving to Recruit and Retain Talent
Workforce shortages continue to be a big concern for local businesses. With fewer students on the Kansas State University campus this spring and summer, Soldan said many businesses are still struggling to have enough workers so they can open up at full capacity.
“We’re hopeful that the campus and our area schools can get back to normal this August,” Soldan said. “It will greatly benefit our economy to get all of our students back in Manhattan. We need that student workforce so our restaurants and retailers can open completely. Employee recruitment will continue to be a big push for us this year.”
To better address workforce and talent recruitment needs, MACC recently hired Amber Wilhelm as its new talent strategy growth coordinator to represent the region at career fairs and to assist with other regional recruitment efforts.
“Already Amber’s making great connections and helping to better market this community to young people looking to start their careers and lay down roots,” Soldan said. “We’re excited to see the results her efforts bring to the region.”
Positioning the Region for Future Growth
At the same time as they’re supporting the needs of current businesses, GMEP staff is also advising local leaders on the spending of American Recovery Act funds to help position the region for future economic growth.
“This will be a once-in-a-generation allocation of funds. We’ve got to prioritize things to set us up for future success, leveraging funds for the most positive impact for the longest period of time,” Soldan said of the ARA, pointing to several local infrastructure projects GMEP is exploring to help jumpstart regional economic development efforts.
Acquiring more land and facilities to attract new business is the top priority of Mark Bachamp, the 2021 chair of the MACC board of directors.
“We must attract more companies to Manhattan to help us keep transitioning soldiers and graduating students here in the region long term,” Bachamp said. “Without shovel-ready sites and buildings available for lease, we’re missing out on possible projects right now.”
Looking forward, MACC President and CEO Jason Smith said GMEP’s primary focus is now positioning businesses to prosper in the post-COVID economy.
“Whether that’s helping more businesses accept online orders, responding to new recovery programs and regulations put out by the government, or making strategic investments in land and infrastructure to help position us for growth as the economy rebounds — we have to always keep moving forward so we grow at a healthy, sustainable rate,” Smith said. “And we have to do all that while also making sure people feel comfortable with business getting back to normal.”
To learn more about the Greater Manhattan Economic Partnership and what services this dedicated team of economic development professionals can offer you or your business, please reach out to Daryn Soldan (Manhattan) at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jack Allston (Pottawatomie County) at email@example.com.