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Creativity And Government Aid Kept Small Businesses Afloat In 2020

Katie Ghen Simpson makes a sale over FaceTime on December 16, 2020 at Bathing Beauties Beads, where she is the owner.
Katie Ghen Simpson makes a sale over FaceTime on December 16, 2020 at Bathing Beauties Beads, where she is the owner.

It’s been a rough year for Montana’s small businesses and more help could be on the way, packaged in Congress’ latest COVID-19 relief bill that's headed to President Donald Trump's desk. But that relief will look different in this round of aid and some programs that helped businesses stay afloat might not continue into the new year.

Bathing Beauties Beads in Missoula is a brightly colored store with jewelry making supplies and art lining the walls to a high ceiling. Owner Katie Ghen Simpson stands towards the back at a table with about a dozen neatly-laid out tools and kits.

"You just lay the metal in on one of the ends, and screw it down and it just comes right out," Simpson said while making a recent sale to a customer in California on her phone through FaceTime.  "But I’ll show you first what we talked about on the phone." 

"Ok, I’ll get my notes out" the shopper said. 

Before the pandemic, Ghen Simpson used to show customers some basic jewelry making techniques or even sit down with some for tea when they came in. Now, she’s trying to keep up that level of interaction from a safe distance.

"I’ll grab one of those, so I can show it to you," Simpson said. 

Along with finding creative new ways to interact with customers, Ghen Simpson’s shop kept its doors open with aid from the state and federal government.

In particular, Ghen Simpson says the Department of Commerce’s Montana Business Stabilization Grant made a huge difference and helped ease some of the stress.

Being able to sleep at night is really important when you’re working like 200 days in a row," Simpson said. 

Ghen Simpson’s business is one of many in every county in the state that received relief grants totalling nearly $700 million from the state of Montana amid the coronavirus pandemic. Those grants were paid for, in part, from funding in the CARES Act passed by Congress this spring. But state and local governments won’t get money for these types of grants in the latest federal COVID-19 relief deal.

Marissa Perry, Governor Steve Bullock’s communications director, says there’s no new funding in the new coronavirus relief bill passed by the U.S. Congress this week for similar state programs.

While the new federal package extends the deadline for when that grant money can be used, most states, including Montana, have already spent the money amid the high demand for financial assistance during the pandemic related economic downturn.

Wayne Johnston is the bureau chief for the Business Assistance Bureau with the Department of Commerce.

"When we were looking at this back in, you know, March, April, and May, you know, nobody expected it really to last as long as it has," Johnston said. 

The business review site Yelp said in a September economic report that over 164,000 businesses in the U.S. have closed since the pandemic began, with 60% of those closing permanently. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said last week that just 56% of Western small business owners report good overall business health.

Quiltworx Business Manager Judel Neimeyer says it took a big hit with the pandemic. It had to cancel all events, which make up more than half of the company’s revenue. It also partially laid off five of its nine employees, which meant Neimeyer had to pick up a lot of the work herself.

"There's burnout, people are tired," Neimeyer said. 

Neimeyer says she was able to fully rehire her workers with the help of a state grant the company was awarded, along with a Paycheck Protection Plan loan it received through the federal Small Business Administration. Those all helped the company adjust how it brings in money and connects with customers.

Congress’ latest COVID-19 relief bill continues the Paycheck Protection Program, infusing it with more than 280 billion dollars.

Neimeyer says the program's loans earlier this year helped the company sell more online, which bumped retail sales from 20% of its income to about 40-50% since the pandemic started.

"So that part was good," Neimeyer said while laughing. 

Neimeyer's business is also doing Zoom and YouTube classes. Neimeyer says her mom, founder Judy Neimeyer, hosts the classes. Both of them have learned a lot this year about producing videos.

She says that when the pandemic hit, they weren’t sure the business would survive. Now, they’re cautiously optimistic that it will, depending on what happens in the new year. 

CORRECTION: The original broadcast of this story inaccurately stated that businesses have received $700,000 in relief grants from the state of Montana amid the coronavirus pandemic. The story has been corrected to show that $700 million dollars has gone to those businesses.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.