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Small businesses need local support

When a tornado tore through Marshalltown in 2018, it left a wake of destruction in the historic central business district. Winds of 144 miles per hour swept through the main square, shattering windows, ripping off roofs, and reducing brick walls to piles of rubble. It was a devastating blow for Marshalltown Central Business District, which had spent the last several years rehabilitating the downtown. Yet the local business group rallied to the challenge, helping Marshalltown’s small businesses find grant funding to repair their buildings.

Today, Marshalltown Central Business District is rallying to face another challenge, as businesses emerge from the governor’s statewide shutdown amid a difficult economy. MCBD has helped local businesses find resources they otherwise would not have known about, partnered with a local nonprofit to help bring meals to families in need, and is currently running a promotion encouraging Marshalltown residents to patronize local businesses.

Despite these efforts, Marshalltown’s Main Street — and other small business districts around Iowa and the U.S. — is seriously at risk. Nationwide, one in three small businesses is in danger of closing its doors for good within the next five months, according to a recent study by Main Street America, a national nonprofit that supports preservation-based economic development and community revitalization programs like MCBD. Given that America’s small businesses employ nearly 60 million people, or 47.3 percent of all U.S. workers, that figure should be cause for serious concern — and more importantly, a call to action.

While the federal Paycheck Protection Program is a first step toward preventing small business failure on a catastrophic scale, a successful rebound will require more than a one-time cash infusion. State and local elected officials are the next — and last — line of defense in protecting small businesses. In future budget negotiations, these officials must recognize that recovery depends on local organizations like MCBD, which help small businesses on the ground, community by community. Cutting funding for such programs would be shortsighted, resulting in lost jobs and reductions to state and local revenue.

Today, small businesses urgently need such hyperlocal support systems, including Main Street programs, business improvement districts and other downtown groups. Their leaders are trusted sources of information and connectors to business resources. They are also highly knowledgeable about their local economies and the players in them — making these leaders uniquely suited to broker creative solutions to support small businesses.

And creative solutions will be in high demand. Iowa small businesses that have survived stay-at-home orders face a long and difficult recovery. Dire unemployment figures suggest that many people simply won’t have the spending power they did before the crisis. Residual concerns regarding coronavirus transmission are also likely to slow the recovery of the restaurants, retail stores and service businesses that are the heart of communities.

Without local economic development programs, the prognosis is bleak: shuttered storefronts, vacant downtowns and massive job loss. But there is a proven treatment. Local business groups like MCBD can help small businesses navigate a confusing patchwork of funding sources, advocate for rent relief and assist with some transition to e-commerce.

Now more than ever, lawmakers must support small, local businesses and programs like MCBD, which are the backbone of Iowa’s communities, downtowns and neighborhood business districts. Reducing or eliminating funding for such programs would be a grave mistake. These organizations have a proven history of rallying to uplift their communities — and there can be no recovery without them.

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Deb Millizer is the Executive Director

of the Marshalltown Central Business District

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