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A public-private partnership for helping small businesses and empowering workers in Birmingham, Ala.

Editor's Note:

This case study is part of the Spotlight on Local Recovery Efforts series, a feature of the COVID-19 Metro Recovery Watch.

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Summary

Bham Strong is a public-private partnership of more than 30 partners formed to coordinate and strengthen COVID-19 relief and recovery efforts in the city of Birmingham, Ala.

Before COVID-19 hit, many Birmingham residents were already economically vulnerable. Of the city’s residents, 27.2% live in poverty, and more than 70% have less than $1,000 dollars in savings.1 Since March, when COVID-19 started affecting the economy in earnest, nearly 25% of the city’s workforce has filed for unemployment insurance.

Recognizing the urgent nature of the COVID-19 crisis, the preexisting economic vulnerability of many Birmingham residents, and the need to support the Birmingham community not only in meeting their vital needs but also preparing for a post-COVID-19 economy, the partnership has grown to focus on two initiatives:

  1. Fortifying small businesses through the Bham Strong emergency loan fund, which provided bridge capital before Small Business Administration (SBA) resources became available, and connecting business to federal aid.
  2. Empowering workers to meet community needs through the Birmingham Service Corps, a program that matches recently unemployed workers with paid volunteer opportunities that meet community needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Execution

At the inception of the pandemic, Bham Strong generated an initial survey for small business owners and residents to quickly assess needs. In coordination with local partners, Bham Strong worked to design solutions to meet those needs.

Fortifying small businesses: Within a week of launching, Bham Strong had collected data from more than 650 small businesses. Bham Strong learned that businesses were projecting laying off 20% of their staff, and 55% of businesses had already experienced a revenue loss of more than 50% in the prior two weeks. Bham Strong’s initial course of action was to launch an emergency loan fund. The $2.4 million-dollar fund was capitalized by the city of Birmingham, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, and corporate donors, and administered by the Birmingham Business Resource Center. Applications opened on March 24, and businesses had a week to apply for the 180-day, low-interest loans, which ranged from $10,000 to $25,000. Ninety loans were distributed shortly thereafter.

After the launch of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), Bham Strong launched technical assistance programs for small businesses to ensure they could access federal resources. Initially, Bham Strong operated a small business outreach program which contacted Birmingham business owners to make them aware of these new SBA funding opportunities. The outreach program was staffed by Birmingham Service Corps members, who contacted nearly 3,000 small businesses to provide information, referrals, and technical assistance. As many banks limited applications to existing clients, Birmingham businesses without robust existing relationships with a bank or lender were left without recourse. To address this need, the city of Birmingham, Bham Strong, Hope Credit Union, and Goldman Sachs partnered to expand access to $5 million worth of PPP loans during the second round of program funding. The Birmingham Service Corps deployed members to provide administrative support for the program. Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses program is acting as the initiative’s liquidity sponsor, enabling Hope Credit Union to leverage their local network and make $5 million available in loans to local businesses. To date, the partnership has applied for over $3 million dollars of funding.

Empowering workers to meet community needs: A recent study by Oxford Economics estimates that 95,000 jobs in Birmingham will be lost due to COVID-19, or 17.3% of the employment base. Unemployment is concentrated among lower-wage workers, most of whom have less than $1,000 in savings. As a response to the growing economic insecurity, in April 2020, Bham Strong launched the Birmingham Service Corps, a flagship program that empowers recently unemployed or underemployed workers to meet critical needs in the community through paid volunteer service.

Corps members have phone-screened public housing residents for COVID-19 symptoms, laying the foundation for a data-driven mobile testing strategy. They have delivered lunches and school supplies to Birmingham City School System students. They have also increased capacity at nonprofits combating COVID-19 by joining as staff members. To date, the Corps program has deployed more than 325 Birmingham residents into opportunities with wages ranging from $15 to $25 dollars per hour. On average, these individuals experienced over a 50% decrease in their income related to COVID-19 prior to Service Corps membership.

The first phase of Bham Strong is designed to meet immediate community needs in the midst of the pandemic. Recognizing the enduring economic impact of the virus and the precariousness of the Birmingham workforce, the second phase will leverage the Service Corps infrastructure to make service a bridge to the workforce of the future.

Pandemic-related job erosion has sharpened the need to proactively connect unemployed individuals to jobs, training and other social services, including jobs relevant to pandemic relief and recovery such as contact tracing. These emerging needs, in tandem with COVID-19 federal stimulus funding, present an opportunity for an inclusive job training and preparation effort that can be spearheaded by Bham Strong.

Bham Strong is working with local employers and training providers such as the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and Pack Health to invest in Corps members’ skills to prepare them for in-demand positions such as community health workers and digital health advisors, while also training them as a reserve contact tracing workforce. Federal CARES Act funding will support this work.

Cost and timeframe

Bham Strong was launched March 14, 2020. The public-private partnership has been funded by the city and corporate donors, with approximately two-thirds of funding coming from the public sector and a third from corporate contributions. For the initial Bham Strong emergency loan fund, the city allocated $1.2 million dollars, which was matched by the private sector for a total of $2.4 million dollars. Almost a month later, the Birmingham City Council approved a $1 million agreement to seed the Birmingham Service Corps, joining private donors such as Shipt and the Altec-Styslinger Foundation, which had already funded pilots for the initiative. In the long term, federal CARES Act funding will be deployed to fund phase two of the Birmingham Service Corps .

Key components and features

Fortify small businesses

  • Bham Strong loan program
  •  Access to technical assistance for federal aid

Empower workers and meet community needs

  • Birmingham Service Corps

Build a resilient community

Successes

Bham Strong has collaborated across public, private, and nonprofit sectors to facilitate recovery efforts for Birmingham. To date, Bham Strong has empowered over 2,800 small businesses through access to capital or technical assistance, while also putting over 300 unemployed workers back to work to meet community needs through paid service with the Birmingham Service Corps. The Corps has served residents across all areas of Birmingham, and they received applications for interested members from 70 of the city’s 99 neighborhoods. Sixty-seven percent of Corps members placed into paid positions are people of color, and 63% are Black. On average, members have experienced a 50% decrease in income as a result of COVID-19.

Through the Corps partnership with local nonprofits, over 20 local organizations providing COVID-19 relief have received funded staff support, increasing capacity to serve local residents. These nonprofit placements also provide career development opportunities for Corps members, who benefit from strong managerial relationships and opportunities to build skills in administration, client services and communications.

Considerations

Federal and State Policy Impacts: Federal and state strategies for COVID-19 response have evolved rapidly. According to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, for example, the Small Business Administration introduced 35 changes to program rules and FAQs regarding PPP funding alone.[2] Significant uncertainty regarding how state and local CARES Act funding will be disbursed and the limits placed on municipal funding by Alabama state law have constrained Bham Strong’s ability to deliver services and gain community buy-in, while introducing significant administrative burdens.

Recruitment: Reaching dislocated workers and residents requires multipronged recruitment strategies, including earned media, social media outreach, leveraging the platforms of local validators, leveraging the networks of community partners, and peer referral.

Agility: COVID-19 has introduced uncertainty into nearly every area of municipal policy and urban living. For Bham Strong to effectively support the Birmingham community, it needed to move quickly, recognize emerging issues, and operate pilot-style programs. Bham Strong staff identified success metrics for each pilot program, quickly set up minimum viable products for each intervention, and weren’t afraid to move on when solutions didn’t work or other partners were better situated.

Evolution: Phase one of Bham Strong focused on meeting immediate needs through the Birmingham Service Corps. Recently unemployed or underemployed workers have an opportunity to contribute to the economic and public health response, fill emerging community gaps, and earn wages to meet their vital needs. Phase two of Bham Strong’s work will focus on leveraging the Corps as part of a coordinated workforce training strategy that prepares residents to compete in a post-COVID-19 economy. The Corps can use service as a pathway to re-skill, credential, and place adult workers who have lost jobs due to COVID-19. Bham Strong has made it clear that this is something that they are considering. “We believe service can be a pathway to career opportunity, and that the Birmingham Service Corps is a blueprint for inclusive economic development,” said Suzanna Fritzberg, executive director of Bham Strong. “As we move beyond our roots as a pandemic relief partnership, we’re developing into a skills-training program that prioritizes diverse local talent.” Bham Strong has the opportunity to be a nimble vehicle that receives public and philanthropic funding, working alongside employer partners to develop native Birmingham talent for the workforce of the future.


Sources and additional resources


Do you have a similar solution in your area? Is there another problem that you’re tackling in an innovative way that you’d like to share with a wider audience? Contact us at localrecovery@brookings.edu.

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