116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Ana McClain, co-owner of Lion Bridge Brewing Co., says she can feel the energy return to her restaurant and taproom as COVID-19 cases drop and more people get vaccinated.
Excitement is in the air, McClain said, as people begin to safely gather again after a year of social distancing and mask-wearing to curb the coronavirus’ spread. But after businesses shifted operations on the fly last year to keep employees and customers safe and to tap into the virtual market, it’s anyone’s guess what the future holds for downtown.
To help businesses adjust to the changing economy as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the city of Cedar Rapids has started its Business and Community Kickstart Program in partnership with the Kirkwood Small Business Development Center to support small businesses through recovery from challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic and last summer’s derecho.
The Cedar Rapids City Council in April approved an initial $50,000 allocation for the program. But Cedar Rapids Economic Development Manager Jasmine Almoayyed said the city could look to bump up funding if the need arises.
After taking into account feedback from a group of about 15 to 20 business owners, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said Cedar Rapids officials structured the program to address several areas of need identified by that committee with limited but targeted city funds.
“It's small, it's unique, it's founded with support from the business community,” Pomeranz said. “And I think we're excited that it's going to be a beneficial program where we're properly using tax dollars to assist our very valuable small businesses who we all agree are really the backbone of our Cedar Rapids economy.”
Resources through the program are offered to Cedar Rapids-based businesses with fewer than 100 employees.
Assistance offered includes:
- Sales and marketing strategy — Help provide a blueprint to get, keep and grow customers
- Marketing technology systems — Support for identifying resources to assist with marketing subscriptions, integration and implementation assistance
- Human resources — Provide ad hoc services including company policy changes for a remote workforce, recruiting strategies for rebuilding workforce and hiring policies
- Finance and bookkeeping — Assist with applications for financial aid such as federal and state loans and grants or cash flow analysis and strategies.
Businesses may apply at cedar-rapids.org/alert_detail/back_cedar_rapids.php or visit the website to learn more. There currently is not an application deadline or end date to the program.
Qualifying businesses must have operated before March 2020, when Gov. Kim Reynolds first implemented pandemic-related restrictions, Almoayyed said.
Small businesses have faced a number of obstacles in the past year, Almoayyed said, such as navigating applications to apply for a forgivable loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, recruiting employees to return to the workforce and successfully operating virtually with services such as curbside pickup. This program is a way to support local entrepreneurs and help them meet such needs, she said.
“We need to do whatever we can to support the businesses that are here because that's what makes our city — not just for property taxes — but that's what makes Cedar Rapids a community people want to live in, so we have to do everything we can to support existing industry here,” Almoayyed said.
The Kirkwood Small Business Development Center already had about half a dozen existing specialty counselors who worked with clients, said Scott Swenson, the center’s regional director. The framework existed, but he said “what we needed to do is really broaden the offering and have more of those types of resources available.”
He plans to have about 10 or 12 consultants and potentially add more based on demand.
This program hopefully will help businesses grow their revenues, Swenson said, leading to more opportunities for residents as COVID-19 restrictions are eased.
“Rather than thinking of, 'Let's just put things back to business as usual,' the market's probably shifted and you can't go back to the way things were 100 percent,” Swenson said. “So really we want to have the mindset of what can we do to thrive in this period coming out of the pandemic, moving forward.”
Lion Bridge Brewing’s McClain, who applied for support through the program and was part of the group that shaped the initiative with the city, said smaller businesses often are family owned and one or two people wear all the hats. They have to balance finances, human resources, business development and marketing.
Meeting with a consultant who could help advise on those areas could cost hundreds of dollars an hour, McClain said.
“A lot of that falls on the business owner and they’re trying to be a jack of all trades, but at the end of the day it’s really helpful to meet with an expert in that particular area,” McClain said.
The BACK Program is not intended to be the be-all and end-all support mechanism for small businesses, McClain said, but it is “one more thing that can help" in addition to federal aid and grant funding.
"This program hopefully will be one more thing in the toolbox for small businesses to be able to recuperate and be ready for this new post-pandemic economy that we’re still discovering what it’s going to be like,” McClain said.
“We’re still not completely out of it … . And now with the economy the new way after the pandemic, hopefully there’s new growth with that and a new energy put into everything.”
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