HART — Small businesses have suffered through the COVID-19 pandemic with state orders forcing them to close for months and then slowly reopen with difficult restrictions.
Efforts to keep people safe from the deadly virus have taken their toll on restaurants, shops, hair salons, gyms and other businesses. However, the Oceana County community has proven its resilience as businesses work together and show their heart.
Nichole Steel, is the community and economic development director for HEART, which stands for Hart Economic and Redevelopment Team.
“We started racking our brains on how we can help,” said Steel. “I think that forced us to do things we should have done a long time ago. The walls are coming down, and we’re working together and it’s making us stronger.”
HEART is formerly the Hart Main Street program. “We graduated from that, and now we offer economic services to the entire city — not just the downtown district,” Steel explained. “That program did wonderful things for 10 years, and we were looking to expand the boundaries.”
HEART launched at the beginning of the year, and Steel was hired in March. Then, COVID-19 hit, and businesses were sent into a tailspin. However, Steel with her experience and ingenuity, quickly found ways to help local businesses during an unprecedented time.
“It’s forced us to be creative and collaborate. We had to pull together.”
Soon “Discover Oceana” was formed, which is a collaboration of representatives from each small community in Oceana. Chamber of commerce and economic development representatives come together each week.
“We formed a website, and we’re working on video. It’s all about promoting our local businesses. We have a strong tourist base here, and we want to link it to that. No one knew what businesses were open or when or how. So we have a full directory — it’s totally free for businesses. If you’re a business in Oceana County, you’re on there with a link.”
Steel spearheaded a successful gift card program in Hart that evolved into a county-wide effort. The city committed $5,000 that was remaining in the Main Street funds, which allowed for the purchase of 600 gift cards. Community members bought the cards for $25, but were able to buy $35 in merchandise. “We committed to $10 per card.”
A total of 18 businesses participated in the Hart program, which raised $17,000 in a week, Steel said.
“Checks range from a couple hundred up to $2,500 to businesses. Once cards are sold, they get the money right away. This caught the attention of an anonymous person who suggested doing it county-wide and gave us a check for $10,000. One hundred businesses signed up, and we sold out in two days. The 1,200 cards generated $42,000 for the community.”
Steel recalled watching the emails rapidly come in of the gift card sales. “It was like hitting the lottery. It coincided with businesses re-opening, so it brought great energy.”
“The City of Hart generously agreed to administer it,” she said of the county-wide program.
“The city is offering it as a gift to our neighboring communities.”
The Community Foundation for Oceana County and Consumers Energy jumped in and matched the anonymous donor’s contribution. “So, we have little pot of money to do some marketing with.” The funds will be used to purchase marketing yard signs encouraging the community to shop locally.
Some businesses “were sweating to make rent,” she said. “They were very thankful for the boost.”
HEART has provided other crucial assistance for the businesses struggling to survive the health and economic crisis.
Weekly Zoom meetings have opened up “a roundtable for our merchants.” The organization has brought in speakers with encouraging words for the business owners. HEART’s website has several links for COVID resources.
“It got kind of scary there for a while — we were all isolated.” HEART provides “a face behind all of this overwhelming information that was coming in. It has also served as a link to other organizations that can help.
“It is wonderful to see everyone come together.”
HEART has implemented “social spaces” for outdoor businesses. “If they want to apply for it, the DPW will come down and rope it off and put picnic tables out.” This allows for an expansion of seating areas for restaurants that must abide by occupancy restrictions. “Now that we’ve done this, maybe it will stick. There are a lot of silver linings. When you go through struggles, you don’t take things for granted and you have get creative.”
HEART has been encouraging business to have an online presence with menus, virtual stores, etc. “There is no limit to the online presence,” said Steel. She expects online services will continue to thrive after the pandemic is over.
Steel said she has been touched by the heartening interaction of the local business people.
“They are the soul of our community.” She said when the gift card program was introduced, merchants wanted to make sure their neighbors were taken care of before themselves. “Everyone thought the other person needed it more. It was heartwarming. They just wanted to help their neighbors.”
A Coldwater native, she was the chamber of commerce director in her hometown and has 14 years of experience in city government, including zoning, building and housing. “I feel like I’m back home doing work for the community. I moved here, and then the job popped up. It’s either you move for the job or you move where you want to be. I moved where I wanted to be and then the job popped up.”
HEART, which operates through the city government, has developed an economic strategy. “That’s our bible, and it’s available for the public to view online.” The strategy offers educational tools for infrastructure, business recruitment and development.
The organization is looking for volunteers. If you are interested, call the HEART office at 231-301-8449.
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