The coronavirus pandemic has spurred many business owners to restructure the focus of their enterprise, hone in on their core revenue generation, market themselves more, and to remodel and rebrand.

“Some businesses took the opportunity to remodel. Several did some great updates. So hopefully there are some businesses that come out of this stronger than they were,” said Ann Fitch, executive director of the Waseca Chamber.

Michael Looft, president and CEO of the New Ulm Chamber, said many businesses are making adaptions.

“We’ve had some good things that happened. Some boutiques and restaurants have gone online. They’ve innovated and changed their business.

“There’s a lot of new marketing, new websites. They’re trying to stay alive,” Looft said.

In St. Peter, Patty Conlin used the months of being closed to reassess her Stones Throw art gallery and jewelry studio in the big blue house on Minnesota Avenue.

“I’ve changed over to a jewelry studio more than an art gallery.

“I still have local artists, potters, glass blowers. I have a lot of art here, but what people want me to do, and what I make the most money on, is custom jewelry,” Conlin said.

She said that in talking to other downtown business owners, she’s found many are looking at new ways of doing business.

“And they’re figuring out how many employees they need and what they can do to stay in business.”

Conlin built up a lot of jewelry inventory in recent months, what she calls her “corona projects.”

Her shop has been reconfigured with her jewelry studio expanded from part of the back room to into the front room, with counters added to separate the spaces.

She requires customers to wear face masks. “I’m in the older risk group. People have been pretty good about wearing masks and keeping them over their nose. I have a stockpile of them if they need one and I tell them to keep them.”

St. Peter Chamber Director Ed Lee said struggling business owners are patient as things creep back but are frustrated.

“They’re not frustrated with the governor or with the public, they’re frustrated with the virus.”

He hasn’t heard of any St. Peter business that had to reclose after opening because of COVID-19 cases among staff.

The Chamber is seeking $10,000 from the EDA to start an advertising campaign to attract customers to local businesses.

“I would like to see more people in stores. They’re distancing and cleaning and they’ve done their work to make people safe. If people feel safe enough in grocery stores, they should certainly feel safe enough in the boutiques and other stores downtown,” Lee said.

No city of festivals

While most businesses are being hurt by reduced capacity and reluctance of some consumers to return to stores, Looft said New Ulm is hit extra hard by the loss of events in the German-rich city.

“We’re kind of known as the city of festivals, and we’re definitely not the city of festivals right now. We’re seeing some uptick in out-of-area visitors — people taking day trips from the Cities, Mankato, Sioux Falls — but not nearly enough to make up.

“It’s trying times for everyone.”

He said bars and restaurants are generally being hit harder than boutiques and shops. “The 50% (capacity) and the reservations (requirement) are daunting for people. They’re just not seeing the foot traffic.”

He said no businesses have had to close again after reopening.

Looft said the New Ulm EDA helped businesses with two types of relief, totaling nearly a half-million dollars.

“There were $2,500 grants to businesses and that has been very well-received.” And the EDA has made $10,000 loans at 1% interest

Waseca adapting

Fitch said Waseca’s specialty shops and other retailers are doing pretty well. “They’re not there yet but they’re on their way.”

She said many restaurants continue to offer curbside pickup and delivery.

“There are still customers that don’t feel comfortable going out yet.”

Fitch said everyone is waiting for consumer confidence to return. “It’s not that they’re not confident in individual stores, but just with the whole situation.”

She said people also have gotten used to not going out in recent months. “So it will take some time. And there are no events going on, so you don’t have people going to an event and then shopping or eating out.”

Fitch said she doesn’t know of any stores that opened and had to close again. “We haven’t had a spike (in cases) here like in some counties.”

Fitch, who serves on the Waseca Economic Development Authority board, said the board was quick to respond when businesses were ordered closed.

The Waseca EDA was the first in the state to have a COVID-relief program, she said. “We knew the federal money wasn’t going to come for a while.”

The EDA used $225,000 from reserves, allowing businesses to apply for up to $10,000. Half of the award doesn’t have to be paid back and the rest has a zero percent interest rate.

“So it was a good deal. That’s what the EDA is for, to stimulate the economy when it’s needed,” Fitch said.

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