Following last September’s gas explosion that devastated parts of Lawrence, North Andover and Andover, business owners faced significant losses that went beyond vital heat and hot water. They lost inventory, equipment and customers they depend on for their livelihood.
In total, 837 small businesses were directly affected and hundreds more were impacted indirectly. Restaurants, salons, shops and service providers worked hard to re-open so they could serve a community that needed them more than ever.
The collective response of residents, elected officials and community leaders was immense, and remains so today. From the very outset, the broad coalition of public officials, non-profit services providers, financial institutions, and anchor organizations came together organically to align resources, develop strategies, and implement solutions on behalf of the impacted business community.
Through the coalition’s advocacy, Columbia Gas provided $10 million in three distinct funds at Essex County Community Foundation (ECCF) in early December. Called the Greater Lawrence Business Relief Effort, the funds were established to aid business recovery and long-term resilience, as a complement to the Columbia Gas claims process, which serves as the primary resource for the direct distribution of money to businesses to account for losses suffered during the crisis and moving forward. Each of the funds was opened with a specific goal and timeline:
$2 million Acute Fund was established to address many of the immediate needs of affected businesses and help as many of them as possible get back to pre-disruption levels by July 1, while also capturing information about the impact to inform investments through other funds.
$6 million Municipal Fund was distributed evenly for the three communities to use for short and long-term recovery priorities. The intent is to assist the impacted business communities. The municipalities are looking to data and needs assessment from the Acute Fund to influence the best approaches to put those resources to use.
$2 million Innovation Fund is set up to help establish long-term regional business resiliency. This fund, which is designed to launch after the acute funding phase ends on July 1 and will be applied over an estimated 3-5 years, is underway with the selection and convening of its five-person Advisory Committee of local business and community leaders which has recently been convened.
(It’s important to note that this $10 million business relief effort does not take the place of business loss claims filed with Columbia Gas and it is not to be confused with the separate $12.6 million Greater Lawrence Disaster Relief Fund (GLDR) launched in October, which had been granted to the affected residents)
While the coalition began its work in October, the $2 Million Acute Fund activity began in December and includes:
Conducting Comprehensive Needs Assessment: It was important to first find out how many businesses were affected and who needed what support to get back to business. Original estimates only told us that 675 gas meters were impacted. That didn’t tell us the full story. EforAll / EparaTodos, a bilingual non-profit that focuses on business development, has spearheaded outreach through more than 1,900 site visits and phone calls to businesses. These efforts have fully identified all 837 impacted businesses and, to date, the group has reached 80% of those businesses and conducted a business health assessment. This work is identifying the status and business needs of each business and connecting them with resources to satisfy those needs. This high touch work supports future decision making about strategies for reinvestment, while also creating targeted initiatives to address the most prominently reported challenges. That work continues.
Providing Critical Business Services:Responding to the key issues identified by businesses, new programming and grant resources have been established to support financial tracking (a resource many businesses have needed to successfully submit full claims) and digital marketing (a strategy to help bring customers back). More than 220 businesses have taken advantage of the immediate business services provided through the fund, including:
Providing Access to Emergency Loans: Thirty-eight businesses have applied for emergency loans being administered by Mill Cities Community Investment (MCCI) to secure capital necessary to getting back up and running. More than $464,000 in loans have been committed to 17 businesses.
Supporting businesses through a Broader Marketing Campaign: One of the consistent fears many impacted businesses have cited is fear that former customers may not know they are open and back in business, or that those customers have moved on and are giving their business to another establishment. To address this widely-reported need, we have recently engaged CTP, an award-winning marketing agency with considerable experience promoting local business and economic development programs, to develop a broader regional campaign to promote the local business community and help drive consumers to support their community businesses. That campaign is in the planning stages and will be launched in the spring.
Based on the personalized, comprehensive needs assessment and continued outreach the coalition is seeing progress. Weeks after the explosions 17% of the businesses remained closed and 55% said they were struggling. Today, only 4% remain closed and 35% report they are struggling.
Much remains to be done. But the work of the broad coalition of business technical assistance providers, public officials and business leaders has played a role in the progress that has been made to date to help many businesses.
Business owners like Janet Nadira of Pronto Pizza in Lawrence, who said, “Our business was closed from September 13 until October 18. EparaTodos was extremely helpful in keeping us updated on the latest happenings, meetings and available assistance and resources. They helped expedite the re-opening process with the City so there would be no delay once the gas service was restored to our location. Most importantly, they continue to offer a vital service through marketing our business, especially on social media. They work with us accordingly and it is greatly appreciated!”
We believe in the resilience of our communities, and with the right support, our small business owners will once again thrive. We will continue to work with business owners, residents and leaders on these initiatives, and will keep all updated throughout.