During many past nationwide disasters and downfalls, Columbia has tended to remain steady. However, no city or county was safe this year from the effects of COVID-19. To get a better idea of how businesses, local government and residents can help each other recover from the economic effects of the pandemic and the measures put in place to control it, Inside Columbia Publisher Emeritus Fred Parry hosted a CEO Roundtable at Zimmer Communications with 17 local business leaders. The event was sponsored by The Broadway Hotel; the hotel’s award-winning chef Jeff Guinn catered the meal that accompanied the conversation.
Participants included business owners and leaders across several industries in Columbia, including healthcare, retail, banking, real estate and education. The main point of discussion: What can Columbia business leaders do to help businesses and residents recover from the economic and social effects of COVID-19?
Testing in Columbia
One barrier to recovery from COVID is a lack of testing and the fact that we don’t know who has had it and recovered, Scott Dalrymple, president of Columbia College, says. “Consumers will act differently if they know that they have recovered, or if the clerks at the store they’re in have recovered. We need testing that’s easily done that either people can do themselves or that you could just go to the drugstore to have done.”
Jonathan Curtright, CEO of MU Health Care, says that testing turnaround rates in Boone County are some of the fastest in the country. “But,” he says, “I couldn’t agree with Scott more. COVID-19 is a major, major challenge facing us.
“It could be two, three years before some of these things happen and I hate to see what’s going to happen in the District during that time period. Cha went bankrupt, Kaldi’s is no longer with us — these are small businesses. I think we as a business community need to dramatically change the way we do business.”
“What does it mean to be in a COVID-positive world and how do we respond to it?” is the question to ask, according to Troy Greer, the new CEO of Boone Hospital. “I think we’ve got to start looking at this and saying, if 10 kids show up to your son’s birthday party for a swim party and one can’t swim and the other nine can, who do you put the life vest on?” he says. “We’ve got to approach this in a much more systemic fashion about what makes sense — how do you promote a healthy economy allowing those who can go through the process and not be at much risk?”
A big part of protecting the vulnerable population, however, is access to timely testing. “MU has been selected to assist the federal RADx program, which was funded with half a billion dollars to accelerate additional testing capabilities for COVID-19 in the U.S.,” Turpin says. “MU is assisting the development of three novel, point-of-care diagnostic tests. These diagnostic tests could be a game changer in situations like testing staff at assisted living communities, you could test them every day. They wait in a waiting room until you know whether they’re infected.” Other rapid testing scenarios include football teams, pro sports, movie sets and cruise liners.
Real Estate Struggles
Most Realtors were pleasantly surprised when instead of the market declining during the pandemic, it actually shot up in Columbia. “This has been a surprising year for us,” Brian Toohey, CEO of the Columbia Board of Realtors, says. “The market has done very well this year, maybe a little too well because of how high prices have increased almost throughout the entire year.” Lower interest rates have helped those looking to purchase homes, but unfortunately people are unable to find homes they want to buy because inventory levels are so low, he says. “People are refinancing and just staying where they are.”
This increased demand and low supply in the housing market translates to a spike in new construction as well. The price gap between purchasing an existing home and constructing a new one has become more marginal, Toohey says, so that coupled with a lack of inventory means more people are considering new construction. Unfortunately, this means building materials have skyrocketed — lumber is up 100% from earlier this year. “We’re starting to see some of those price increases come down in materials over the last month, but it’s still pretty volatile. We’ll have to see what impact that has on the real estate market.”
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EFFECTS OF UNEMPLOYMENT & CHILDCARE/HOUSING NEEDS:
While some businesses, such as real estate, are doing fine despite the pandemic, there are many more that are struggling, Randy Cole, housing programs manager for the City of Columbia, says. “There’s a huge portion of our workforce that is having trouble surviving,” he says. “The Voluntary Action Center got over four times the amount of housing assistance calls for requests for people who just can’t make basic rent payments and things like that. We’ve got utility shutoffs starting on October 5. You have a lot of people that are struggling just to make ends meet.”
Another big issue is childcare while schools are not having in-person classes. Getting kids back into school, and if that’s not an option, investing in new strategies such as learning pods is essential, Cole says.
Todd Hoien, president of Hawthorn Bank in Columbia, echoed the need for more childcare in Columbia. “We have a lot of employers that have openings for second and third shifts — opportunities for people to go make a better wage — but they can’t because they’re a single parent and there just isn’t childcare available,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of organizations that if we could team up resources and connect people and organizations I think we could provide expanded child care.”
Matt McCormick, president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, says parents now have to choose between working and staying home to take care for their children. “The deficiencies we have in our community, COVID is going to make even bigger, and that’s what we’ve got to figure out.”
Greer agrees that a lack of childcare options is wreaking an emotional toll on the community. “I have a friend whose kid is talking about how much he misses being able to interact with other children,” he says. “I think we’re underestimating the emotional toll of not having children interact.”
One potential solution that Bill Turpin, associate vice chancellor of Economic Development at MU and CEO of the Missouri Innovation Center, suggests is learning pods. “Stacey and I met with a young lady last week, whom used to run an after-school program. She wants to help people set up small pods around their own neighborhood where the kids can come during the school day. It would create new jobs for the people running those and help the kids continue to learn in their own neighborhoods.”
But, in Curtright’s experience, while employer-subsidized childcare offers additional options for employees, it may not fully meet their needs, and the demand may not be there. “We created a childcare on the second floor of the Thompson Autism Center with 128 slots for kids K to 5 of MU Health Care employees to make it so that nurses, for example, don’t have to choose to stay home or not. And a month after opening, only half of the spots are filled.” Eligibility for enrollment now is expanding to children of all full-time MU employees.
It’s important to note that a few industries actually saw upticks this year, despite the pandemic. One would be college enrollment, according to Jeff Lashley, president of Moberly Area Community College (MACC). “Our enrollment for this semester is actually up over last fall just by a little bit,” he says.
The main reason? A need for workforce development training. With unemployment rates rising due to COVID, some workers are turning to training programs rather than the traditional 4-year college program. MACC, as well as other community colleges in the U.S., are pivoting to compress programs into more easily attainable degrees and certificates, Lashley says. “For example, in health care we are about to start an accelerated RN program in Columbia and Hannibal and we also have our CNA program, which is done in less than a semester.”
Stacey Button, president of REDI, echoed this sentiment. “All things given this year, we have really low unemployment when we look across not only at Missouri but at the nation,” she says. “But, even with unemployment being low in Boone County, we still have a great need for available workforce to fill positions out there and certification programs help our employers attain those employees they’re seeking with greater skills.”
Columbia College recently added a new cyber security program — nationwide — that gained 150 students within two weeks, Dalrymple says. “We also have a new real estate program we developed in partnership with the National Association of Realtors that has a lot of potential going forward.” Most of the certificate programs only require four or five courses to complete, he says, and the National Association of Realtors offers financial assistance to students.
The new tech college coming to Ashland, Ranken Technical College, will offer more technical training that Columbia, Boone County and central Missouri as a whole need. “I’m excited about Ranken coming to the area because there is a lack of people with construction training, and that will definitely help,” Toohey says.
Training and retraining those who have lost their jobs is essential, Mike Grellner, vice president of Plaza Commercial Realty, says. “But, reaching into the high schools and opening kids’ eyes to these other job opportunities is also essential. You don’t have to expect your education and your career path to be at a desk all day long.
“We’re hitting the bullseye of the wrong target with certain things in our education system, sending kids down the wrong path in a lot of instances where if we could expose them to certain career opportunities, they could have all sorts of job opportunities at a very young age.”
COLLABORATION WITH SURROUNDING CITIES
One answer to recovery in Columbia and Boone County is collaboration, Curtright suggests. “We need to better partner with surrounding towns and cities such as Moberly, Kirksville, Lebanon and Jefferson City in a major way,” he says. He suggests modeling northwest Arkansas’ collaboration of Rogers, Bentonville and Springdale. “If we start to think that way, it’s going to help us in major ways. We’ve got to figure out how to better partner with Jefferson City.”
Hoien voiced his agreement. “We need a regional area because it’s so much more efficient and you have so much more economic growth power.”
“I think we’ve thought of ourselves as bulletproof for so long, and this [COVID-19] has started to poke holes in what we thought couldn’t be touched,” Heather Hargrove, business development manager with Liberty Family Medicine, says. “We have for many years been kind of on the inside looking out — we’ve seen other communities and areas of the country go through these things, but now it’s affecting Columbia, Boone County and the towns around us.
Collaboration could be the answer to business’ and towns’ fragility right now, she continues.
Action Local Government Can Take
A few steps that local government could take to ease the burden on local businesses and residents include increased communication, speaking with restaurant and bar owners, provide utility help to those that need it and consider lifting ordinances.
There has been a lack of consistency in communication, Hargrove says. “If they’re going to choose to use specific data, they should make sure they have all of that data.”
Another important step is to leave industries that are doing well alone, Toohey says. Specifically, with regard to the construction industry, “I think a lot of their spending is what’s keeping the sales tax dollars up,” he says. “It’s not fixing everything, but at least it’s something right now.” Also, finding ways to support those that need financial aid in forms of internet and utility help is essential. “If I could check a box on my cable bill where I could sponsor a family to pay for their internet right now so their kids can go to school, that would be great.”
Rusty Strodtman, senior general manager of the Columbia Mall, suggests that the local government lift the ordinances currently in place in order to allow businesses to recover. “I think we’ve taught a lot of customers how to shop off the internet that had no idea how to do it before that I won’t ever get back,” he says.
Nickie Davis, executive director of The District, says around half of the businesses she speaks with feel the same way. “Half of the businesses in The District love having the government to fall back on to say ‘I’m sorry, we can’t do it this way’ because otherwise the people are getting mad at them for having to wear a mask or social distance.
“Many businesses appreciate what the government is doing to make this end sooner ideally, but many of them absolutely they can’t — they literally cannot function with many of the ordinances that are happening right now. The other thing I just have to say for these small businesses that are mom and pop shops, they have to have another infusion of capital. They are not surviving, and we are going to lose, I can’t even tell you how many more of our institutional businesses that make up Columbia by the end of this year,” she says.
Speaking with and taking local restaurant and bar owners’ opinions and expertise into account is also vital, McCormick says. “Bring in those groups of experts because they’re also going to be able to help give solutions that aren’t so maybe detrimental to their business or their industry that can also help our city, our county, our state governments figuring out how to put these things together,” he says.
While no one knows the exact formula for recovery from COVID, one thing is for certain: If business leaders can continue to come together to discuss solutions and problem-solve, we will be well on our way.
Do you have additional thoughts or suggestions in dealing with COVID-19?
“Communication is so important.” – Nickie Davis, The District
“We need to find ways to open the door to financial resources for our small businesses in this town that they need right now to survive.” – Todd Hoien, Hawthorn Bank
“Focus not on bouncing back and not going back to the normal but bouncing forward: What does your business structure look like tomorrow?” Matt McCormick, Columbia Chamber of Commerce
“Make the field a little more level so that small businesses can compete with the big boxes and be open.” – Rusty Strodtman, Columbia Mall
“It’s imperative that the economy stays open.” – Jonathan Curtright, MU Health Care
“If we adapt, respond and are agile, I think we’re going to do really well compared to the rest of the country.” – Troy Greer, Boone Hospital Center
“How do we reach those people who need to be trained in certain skillsets and knowing what job opportunities are available for them that they just don’t know about now?” – Heather Hargrove, Liberty Family Medicine
“The new normal I think is going to be people from working from more flexible locations. We could attract a lot of people to Columbia.” – Bill Turpin, University of Missouri
“I think there’s work to be done with providing access to capital for minority owned businesses.” – Mike Ireland, Bank of Missouri
“We shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel. We’ve got MACC and Job Point and other great providers. I think staying the course with things that are working well.” – Randy Cole, City of Columbia
“Startups and small businesses need business coaching, training, workshops, opportunities now more than ever to be successful.” – Stacey Button, REDI
“I think it’s useful in a time of crisis like this to look to history. We will struggle through it, but we will make it through.” – Scott Dalrymple, Columbia College
“You don’t want to lose sight of the people that aren’t in this room. What can we do as a community to ensure that the economic divide of those affected most is not broadened?” – Jodi Bales, Miller Bales and Cunningham CPAs
“We’re going to continue to incorporate the positive things we’ve learned from this and we’re going to be solution-focused rather than problem-focused.” – Jeff Lashley, MACC