INDEPENDENCE — Like everything else, the economic development plans for Independence changed in March.
“Everything was going really well until COVID hit,” said Shawn Irvine, economic development manager. “All our area employers were hiring — in fact they were struggling to find enough people to hire. Visitation was continuing to increase, and the downtown was continuing to grow as a regional destination. The hotel opened in October and saw steadily increasing occupancy. Bookings for spring and especially summer were looking really good.”
Then as more people throughout the country and in Oregon tested positive for and died from COVID-19, the governor’s office put restrictions in place to slow the spread.
“COVID has had a major impact on our local economy but I think it has also highlighted the value of the work we’ve been doing the last couple decades,” Irvine said. “Our larger manufacturers — the result of intentional economic diversification — are actually doing quite well.”
He said CabinetWorks, formerly Elkay, was able to hire 70 people.
Construction projects continued.
“Old City Hall is finalizing their streetscape work and we hope to get the brewery open soon,” Irvine said. “The streetlights there are back ordered several months because of COVID. Osprey Pointe is moving forward, the Independence Landing apartments are moving forward. Those are all projects that will boost the downtown when completed.”
Downtown has been hit hard, but people are supporting them, he said.
“We have had two restaurants (Gilgamesh and Silk Thai) open during the pandemic,” Irvine said. “Even five years ago I think we’d have seen a much different, much worse situation downtown, but we’ve been able to build a resilient mix of businesses and customers over time.”
Still, Irvine said, businesses have been “running on the ragged edge” throughout this crisis and the city is working on ways to help.
One way is with a technical assistance program for local businesses with Indy Idea Hub.
“The goal is to help businesses adjust to the new economic and market conditions,” Irvine said. “Our program will work with business owners to help them implement a technical assistance project that will address immediate needs from the impacts of COVID-19, connect them with resources to help them overcome longer-term challenges, and help them address two core competencies — financial literacy and understanding the digital footprint of their business.”
Some businesses, such as restaurants, were able to continue operating at some level through the spring and summer, but Irvine and his team are looking at ways to with the challenges seasonal changes will bring. Cancellation of the usual summer events were also a blow to local businesses.
“Things are working OK right now because everyone wants to be outside,” he said. “It’ll be important to sustain the momentum somehow when the weather isn’t as nice.”
Independence Downtown Manager Courtney Williams has been working with Munchie’s delivery service, he said.
“They’re going to offer a free three-month trial of their service for any Independence business during October, November and December,” Irvine said. “We’ll work to get local businesses thinking about how they can utilize this service and the hope is that after a three-month trial the businesses will have a good idea whether it’s a viable way for them to generate extra revenue during the winter months when people don’t want to go out as much.”
He said Munchie’s delivers food and other products — including beer and wine — from Independence to other cities, as far away as Dallas and West Salem.
Expect to see more of that, including re-worked events to support downtown businesses.
As for events, Williams is working with the Polk County Tourism Alliance to launch the Great Oaks Food Trail, Irvine said.
“It’s a project we’ve been working on with Travel Oregon to promote on-farm experiences and restaurants/food product companies who use local ingredients,” Irvine said. “The kickoff will be at the end of September and (for now) is planned as a farmer’s market-style tasting event in the hotel parking lot.”
The event will be a self-guided tour of participating businesses, he said.
Independence Downtown Association is working on ways to reimagine the Hop Festival, trick-or-treat and the popular ghost walk to align with distancing and health protocols, Irvine said.
Irvine said he is not sure what the next year may look like.
“Information about CARES programs and state funding changes so frequently that it’s difficult to prepare, and then when the programs open they usually have very short deadlines,” Irvine said. “We’re focused on getting through the winter and then we’ll see where things are with COVID, distancing, etc. and will adjust accordingly. There should be a new regional business support grant opening in mid to late September, and we hope to see additional funding programs open in the fall.”
The city has applied for several grants to help cover the cost of various assistance efforts.
“We’ve put in for a bunch, and the application period has typically been very short,” Irvine said.
Business Oregon Emergency Business Support Grant
The cities of Independence and Monmouth partnered and received a $45,000 grant to distribute to local businesses affected by COVID.
“We matched the Business Oregon money with low interest loans from the cities, so a business would receive a $5,000 award — half grant and half loan,” Irvine said. “You had to either have been shut down by the Governor’s executive order or demonstrate a 50 percent loss of revenue to qualify.”
Businesses that received federal support were not eligible.
“We limited it to businesses with 10 employees or less and specifically targeted sole proprietors, Irvine said. “The limitation on companies that received federal support was problematic because many received a minimal payout ($1,000) from Paycheck Protection Program or Economic Injury Disaster Loan, but were still ineligible for our program. This was a rule the legislature put on the funds. We advocated for it to be changed, and hope that the new program coming out in September will have made this adjustment.”
Business Oregon Rural Broadband Capacity Grant
“I’m pretty excited about this,” Irvine said. “We’ll be connecting every Central School District kid inside Independence and Monmouth city limits.”
The district is asking students during registration if they have a decent internet connection, Irvine said.
The city also is putting up 20 WiFi zones in both communities.
“In an emergency they can be converted to a communication network — if you connect to the WiFi zone it’ll have a landing page with info on the emergency, response, etc.,” Irvine said. “It’s CARES money so it needs to be spent by the end of the year, which is tight, but having fiber already laid throughout the community makes it much easier to achieve.”
Oregon Cultural Coalition Arts and Culture Grant
“We had to totally rethink and rework Independence Days and the Summer Series,” Irvine said. “This grant will hopefully cover some of the costs associated with putting on the re-worked July Fourth celebration and Drive-In Movies.”
Irvine said the city has applied for funding for several other programs to fund infrastructure projects like water and sewer upgrades.
“Most of the programs we are accessing are funded through the Federal CARES bill, which requires all the funds be spent by the end of the calendar year,” Irvine said. “Everyone is trying hard to push programs and funding out as fast as possible but many of the deadlines for these grants are only a week or 10 days after they are announced. Plus, because it is an emergency, they’re all kind of coming out on top of each other.”
Irvine said they’ve had to balance a lot of competing projects.
“We’re developing and implementing these programs on the fly in a lot of cases,” he said. “Fortunately, we’re pretty good at starting a project and adjusting as we go.”