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A two-part plan for saving Charlotte, N.C.’s small businesses

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

Small businesses are the backbone of communities across the nation, enhancing our neighborhoods and stimulating local economies. Young small businesses—those in operation for fewer than five years—are especially key drivers of the nation’s net job creation and productivity growth. Unfortunately, small businesses have become especially vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they historically have been during major economic downturns—suffering losses in revenue, closures, and even bankruptcies as stay-at-home orders have been implemented. As a driver of both local economies and the national economy, everyone suffers when small businesses don’t do well.

Open for Business was launched by the city of Charlotte, N.C. in April to support the city’s small businesses throughout the pandemic, the recovery, and beyond. The initiative consists of a two-phase strategy: “Survive” and “Thrive.” The Survive phase centers on several programs that will support small businesses during the pandemic and initial reopening; its efforts aim to establish the Open for Business information-sharing online platform, enlist ecosystem and partner support, provide access to capital, and strengthen workforce readiness. In the Thrive phase, occurring through the end of the year, Charlotte will focus on workforce resiliency to address staggering unemployment, as well as business innovation and resiliency to make sure small businesses are prepared for future challenges anticipated with the pandemic this winter. Workforce resiliency will focus on reducing unemployment by putting Charlotte residents back to work through skills training and job placements.

Execution

Open for Business is an initiative born out of Charlotte’s Small Business Community Recovery Task Force, created by Charlotte mayor Vi Lyles in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The task force is made of up of four city council members and eight community sector leaders who convened for months, and are still convening biweekly. The city of Charlotte is overseeing the implementation of each phase of the initiative respective of the pandemic’s progression and the evolving needs of small businesses. Given that this response is comprised of several programs, some programs call for collaboration with outside organizations. While the execution process is ongoing or yet to begin for many of the Open for Business programs, complete details about the initiative’s full execution is not yet available.

Survive phase

When the Charlotte community began to feel the impacts of COVID-19, one of the first steps for the city was to go on a listening tour of the small business community. What was heard overwhelmingly was the need for businesses to be connected to the right local solutions for financial support, reopening best practices, and networks. They also needed help with branding and marketing their businesses. The Open for Business initiative brand came out of a request from the first virtual Small Business Forum held by the city in March. Born from an ask to have a unique brand to unify under and display in their storefronts (digital or real), the city took the concept and ran with it – tailoring it to a strategy that works for Charlotte’s small business community. One of the first steps in the initiative was to create a logo to set the initiative apart from other COVID-19 efforts in the community and create a cohesive brand for small businesses to unite under. The logo is now recognizable across the city and is a symbolic way to display the relationship and support that the city has with the small business community.

The first engagement model that was created as part of the initiative was the Open for Business Online Mentorship Series, which directly connected the small business community to industry experts and other owners. Each webinar was hosted by the mayor and livestreamed, focusing on relevant, timely topics. By livestreaming each session, the city encouraged public engagement with half of each agenda dedicated to a question and answer period with the audience.

As the strategy continued to build, the city incorporated traditional communication elements such as press releases and social promotions, but one of the biggest focuses was on developing a digital platform. On June 22, CharlotteOpenforBusiness.com was launched—a space designed exclusively for small business owners to find resources and connect with fellow entrepreneurs. The site features available capital programs, success stories from small businesses, COVID-19-related resources, and a public dashboard (also displayed on the city’s website and mobile app) that connects residents to open small businesses to boost their visibility and provide updated business information. To populate the dashboard, small business owners with open businesses complete a brief application to have their business added. Business owners who have temporarily closed their business because of COVID-19 can submit their information to be added once they have reopened. The website will continue to go through iterations over the summer and fall months, providing more information as it becomes available.

To enlist ecosystem and partner support, Open for Business distributed the Small Business Partner Support Grant, a $2 million fund that provides grants up to $250,000 to government, nonprofit, academic, or Chamber/501(c)6 organizations whose main purpose is to serve the local small business community. Already successfully executed, the grant allows local partners to serve the small business community through programs, projects, or services that focus on COVID-19 relief for small businesses. The grant is being overseen by the city’s government. The application period was the first 11 days of June, and grants were administered by the end of June. In addition, to encourage ecosystem and partner support, Open for Business plans to spend $500,000 to form a virtual small business accelerator catering to post-COVID-19 needs, called B2C Small Business Accelerator.

To provide access to capital, Open for Business has launched its Access to Capital program that distributes $30 million to small businesses, administering grants of $10,000 to businesses with five or fewer employees and $25,000 to businesses with six to 25 employees. For this program, which has also already been successfully executed, the Foundation for The Carolinas served as the city’s grantmaking partner, and the YMCA served as a partner. They use a process of random selection to award grants via a software algorithm, and at least three rounds of grants will be awarded between June and August.

To strengthen workforce readiness, Open for Business plans to administer $250,000 in workforce partner support grants to enable capacity-building within the city’s workforce development partner agencies to serve displaced workers in the local economy. Additionally, Open for Business will use $2 million to create two intensive career cohorts that will provide extensive job training and guaranteed job placement in high demand occupations. Participants enrolled in this program will receive a training stipend of $15 an hour and the opportunity for a paid, work-based learning experience with an employer in the industry. The first career cohort is the Advanced Technology Cohort; the city will partner with an existing technology training program and has a target of placing 90 program graduates in permanent, full-time employment. The second cohort is the renewable energy and energy efficiency trades cohort. For this group, the city will launch the Renewable Energy and Efficiency Workforce (RENEW) Training Program. RENEW will bring together training providers and employers to create and implement a 12-month, intensive career training experience aimed at placing 45 participants in permanent employment within the HVAC and electrical trades industry. Participants will complete an industry certified training course and be placed into paid work-based learning experiences, such as apprenticeships, that lead to guaranteed job placement. Targeting residents who have been displaced from employment due to COVID-19, RENEW will give participants access to career centers and services such as mentoring, coaching, and intensive case management during training, work-based learning, and post-training job placement. The program will also support an in-demand job sector that helps the city in its commitment to tackling climate change and promoting a sustainable future. Open for Business plans to continue all of these workforce readiness efforts during the Thrive phase.

Thrive phase

The Thrive phase of Open for Business focuses on resiliency for both small businesses and the workforce. This phase is critical to ensuring Charlotte’s success, as the pandemic is anticipated to continue to impact communities across the country.

To encourage business innovation during the Thrive phase, Open for Business plans to create a Resilient Restart program that offers a cohort-based, intensive resiliency and continuity plan curriculum for small businesses. The curriculum will provide personalized coaching and mentoring to assist small businesses in developing a resilient business plan with direction on how to operationalize it successfully. This program recognizes that there are small businesses that need more than a digital solution; they need hands on coaching to determine next steps.

Open for Business will also launch the Innovate Business Grants program to provide access to capital and help small businesses thrive by addressing the new demand associated with the ongoing COVID-19 response. Following the city’s Access to Capital program, these grants will allow Charlotte to identify the remaining needs of the small business community to become more resilient, which could include grants to help pivot and operationalize resiliency plans along with innovative ideas that may be developed.

With mounting unemployment, putting residents back to work is critical. The city is implementing workforce strategies such as expanding Workforce Partners Support grants, Thrive Hiring Grants, and Workforce Innovation grants. The Workforce Partners Support grants will expand the Survive strategy by adding $2 million of grants to workforce partners in the community. Thrive Hiring Grants will incentivize employers to post new job positions and hire displaced workers during the pandemic by providing cash grants. Workforce Innovation Grants create a nimble fund allowing Charlotte to invest in innovative ideas with Workforce Development Partners to allow for residents to be trained and hired into jobs. Ideas include creating an easily accessible digital database of candidates to hire from workforce partners, funding new training programs and stipends in targeted industries while leveraging Thrive Hiring Grants for guaranteed employment and providing grants to training partners to allow Charlotte residents to receive skilled training for free.

All of these programs will be launched and awarded by the end of 2020.

Cost and timeframe

While the Thrive phase of Open for Business has yet to be budgeted, the first round of the Survive phase has been budgeted and approved by Charlotte’s city council to cost $35 million. This first round of funding will come from the $154.5 million of Charlotte’s federal CARES Act grant money for COVID-19 relief efforts, $50 million of which has been allocated to small business recovery. The vast majority of the $35 million ($30 million) is going towards the Access to Capital Small Business Recovery Program. The remaining funding will cover Small Business Partner Support ($2 million), the Open for Business Initiative ($250,000), Intensive Career Cohorts ($2 million), Workforce Partner Support ($250,000), and the Small Business Accelerator ($500,000).

Key components and features 

Survive Phase

  • Open for Business information-sharing platform
    • Reopening best practices (e.g., mentorship series)
    • Recovery support one-stop shop
    • SMB promotion (open 4 biz)
    • PPE Connections for SMB
    • Consumer/Employee Confidence
  • Ecosystem/Partner Support
    • Existing Partner Grants
    • B2C Small Business Accelerator
  • Small Business Access to Capital
    • Microbusinesses (0-5 employees)
    • Small businesses (6-25 employees)
  • Workforce Readiness
    • Intensive Career Cohorts
    • Workforce Partner Support

Thrive Phase

  • Workforce Resiliency
    • Workforce Readiness (continued)
      • Intensive Career Cohorts (expand)
      • Workforce Partner Support (expand)
    • Thrive Hiring Grant
    • Workforce Innovation
  • Business Innovation and Resiliency
    • Resilient Restart Program
    • Innovate Business Grant

Successes

Open for Business is a uniquely strong approach because of its two-part strategy: Survive and Thrive. It is not simply a response to the devastation that the epidemic has brought to small businesses; it is a response that seeks to take this opportunity to make the small business community stronger. Open for Business is providing the opportunity for business owners to gain knowledge on how to grow through an online mentorship series, small business partner programming, the B2C Small Business accelerator, and the Resilient Restart Program curriculum. They are gaining this knowledge as well as the opportunity to receive growth funding through the Innovate Business Grant and the Thrive Hiring Grant.

Open for Business is also offering workforce development opportunities for those who need to shift careers, demonstrating the need for collaboration between small business growth and workforce development efforts. The RENEW training program supports long-term employment and economic mobility with the eventual goal of participants attaining family-sustaining employment that includes a living wage, employer benefits, and skills development opportunities tied to increased earnings.

In responding to the COVID-19 crisis, Open for Business has recognized the importance of an equitable response to ensure that all small businesses have access to resources. In distributing their Partner Support Grant, some of the highest funding awards went to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce, the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, and the Women’s Business Center of Charlotte. Of the program’s Access to Capital funds, microbusinesses received 93%, Black business owners received 54%, and young businesses between zero and seven years old received 53%. Considering that structural racism has limited the number of small businesses in the U.S. economy and that the youngest businesses drive the nation’s net job creation and productivity growth, supporting the most vulnerable small businesses is imperative in achieving a prosperous recovery, and Charlotte has clearly made it a priority. 

Considerations 

Because the Open for Business Initiative called for a substantial amount of federal funding (which not every city received), this multitiered response is not one that can be applicable everywhere. Even still, Charlotte’s Small Business Task Force faced their own challenges. Open for Business was not a response that was formed overnight; it took weeks of conversations with local small business owners to understand their needs before mapping out a comprehensive, cost-effective plan to help. From their planning, they realized that weaving one big strategy together would be more effective than creating several individual initiatives that reflected the various actions that leadership wanted to take immediately, but this would take time. While responding to the urgent needs of small businesses with the Survive plan, they had to simultaneously manage people’s expectations about what was to come in the Thrive plan. Although it took time to develop, Open for Business became the ultimate convener for assisting small businesses in Charlotte.

The Small Business Task Force also found a great deal of value in having small business owners serve on their committee in addition to representatives from larger business entities. Amplifying the voices of local small business needs, these committee members included the owner of a local clothing store, one of the vice presidents of a local food and support services company, and the president of a small hotel chain based in Charlotte.


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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