If it takes a village to raise a child, as it’s often been said, then it takes an “ecosystem” of nonprofit, academic and for-profit groups to save a small business.

That’s the philosophy behind recently established umbrella organization in the Merrimack Valley that seeks to take all lessons learned during the Columbia Gas disaster and apply them to the current COVID-19 crisis.

“The silver lining of the gas disaster was the mobilization of an ecosystem providing an ongoing investment in small businesses,” said Stratton Lloyd, executive vice president of the Essex County Community Foundation, which has been tapped to manage many of the financial resources made available as a result of the gas disaster.

“Over the last couple of years," he said, "we have continued to nurture and grow, so when COVID hit, this ecosystem was already in place and able to mobilize rapidly.”

The Merrimack Valley Business Relief coalition, or MVBR, is a group of organizations bringing different strengths and skill-sets to the business of helping small businesses, according to Lawrence Partnership Executive Director Derek Mitchell, who might be called the co-pilot of the group along with Lloyd.

“There are two battles,” Mitchell said. “Making sure there are resources for small businesses and then making sure businesses have access to them.”

For MVRB, that means bringing together an alphabet soup of nonprofits, banks, community organizations and more with the goal, he said, of keeping small businesses in the Merrimack Valley alive and well.

“We don’t work with the actual businesses,” Mitchell said, referring to himself and Lloyd. “We are supporting the ecosystem.”

According to the group’s website, mvopenforbusiness.org, the coalition came together “in the wake of the Columbia Gas disaster in the Merrimack Valley. Then, as now, the need for coordinated efforts to support small businesses was vital. The coalition came to understand that a successful economic recovery lies in a systems approach that actively involves nonprofits, business and community leaders, state and municipal governments, funders and volunteers.”

Given the twin hits of the Sept. 13, 2018 gas disaster, which leveled homes and businesses in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence, and the COVID-19 pandemic — which is bringing even more economic hardship — the need for these services is greater than ever, Mitchell and Lloyd said.

In one of its early success stories, the group, through its partnership with Mill Cities Community Investments, or MCCI, helped more than 150 businesses apply for federal loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, enabling them to keep employees on the payroll despite dwindling profits resulting from the COVID-19 economic shutdown.

MVRB also works with the Enterprise Center at Salem State, EforAll/EparaTodos, TLE Center for Entrepreneurship, Surfside Capital Advisors, Amplify LatinX and the Foundation for Business Equity.

It has alliances with local, state and federal agencies including the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp. and the leaders of Andover, North Andover and Lawrence, among others.

“The coalition has grown,” Mitchell said, adding that a lot of services are being delivered virtually because of the COVID-19 crisis. He said more services for small businesses in the region are coming from places like Salem and Boston.

The result of the growth of MVBR is that other regions of the state are now watching the organization, hoping to mimic their success.

“All these other regions are looking to us saying, ‘We need that too. How do we do that?’” Mitchell said.

Lloyd, whose ECCF is more of a regional organization than the Lawrence Partnership, said the MVBR is also helping businesses outside of the Merrimack Valley.

He said the PPP program run by MCCI served some businesses that were outside of the three communities originally rocked by the gas disaster, from Methuen and Salem, Massachusetts, to Haverhill and Salem, New Hampshire.

“We continue to build out that ecosystem, to ensure that small businesses in other parts of the Merrimack Valley and Essex County have access to technical services, capital and financing, and access to networks,” Lloyd said. “That’s the broader vision.”

He said the group is helping small businesses like barbershops, bodegas, restaurants, retail outlets, home-based child care operations and entrepreneurs in general.

“Our goal is to help all businesses,” he said, noting that some business owners are maxing out their credit cards to stay afloat. “We want to provide access to grants and loans that will be part of their recovery,” he said.

Mitchell said he expected the coming months to be even more difficult.

“The weather is getting colder so there will be less outdoor dining,” he said. “The PPP program is expiring so businesses can’t keep people on payroll. Many businesses carry low cash reserves. We are all anticipating the next couple months will be harder than the last couple of months. It’s not a rosy situation — particularly for small businesses.”

 

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