During the Christmas and New Year holidays, I had what now is an unbelievable, almost laughable vision for what this year was going to mean for me: a whole bunch of positive, fun stuff. My daughter Megan was to be married on June 6 (now we are looking at August 29, maybe); my youngest child, Liam, is set to graduate from college in December (though this year has been different for him, he’s still on track); and at The Smoky Mountain News, we had hired a new sales professional, secured some new contracts, developed some new digital offerings, shuffled around some positions, and the table was set for what I was confident would be our company’s best year ever.
Then whatever normalcy any of us expected burst, and like water pent up behind a dam, a torrent of upheaval the likes of which the world and this country has never seen was unleashed.
As Covid-19 began to tighten its grip, things that were normal became distant memories: shaking hands, hugging friends and going to concerts and movies. Words like “social distancing” and “contact tracing” once sounded strange and almost nonsensical. And as I write this, we are told more than 130,000 Americans have died from this pandemic.
All of us have watched small businesses close, some partially re-open, some perhaps never again able to make their business viable. We’ve wondered why WalMart was essential but not the jewelry store on Main Street or the galleries and other small, niche retailers that sell similar products. I can’t stand people mooching off the government, but I wasn’t upset at all that people close to me were able to qualify for unemployment benefits as jobs disappeared by the millions.
All of this, and we haven’t even mentioned George Floyd’s May 25 killing. The social and cultural shockwaves roiling this country are forcing us to acknowledge the still-present systemic racism. It’s going to take a long time to see how we come to grips with this realization and what changes will come, but fundamental reforms are coming. For some, it’s going to hurt; others will rejoice. My fear is that some will resort to even more violence and more extremism.
The very character of our small mountain towns is on course for a major reset, at least if you consider the small-business community part of that character and appeal. For me, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, building supply, hardware store and other workers and entrepreneurs are all friends and neighbors, and this whole group of people and their businesses are part of why I’ve come to love this region and call it home for so many years.
So, I hope most of them, no, all of them, survive this. I was looking at the Small Business Administration’s recent release and started counting the number of businesses who applied for and received Paycheck Protection Program loans (count SMN and Smoky Mountain Living in this group). This is the money that is supposed to turn into a grant if the businesses follow SBA guidelines and spend it properly. The sheer numbers are staggering.
Just counting those who were approved for PPP loans of less than $150,000, you have 227 in Waynesville, 217 in Franklin, 121 in Sylva, 74 in Bryson City and 53 in Canton. I didn’t look at some of the other smaller towns, but I’m sure the total number tops 1,000 in this four-county region. And there’s a good likelihood that many of these also applied for and received the Economic Injury Disaster Loans that do have to be paid back.
Dozens of other businesses in our region got PPP loans of over $150,000, and the SBA actually has a database that allows you to search for those businesses by name. If you search, you’ll see many millions of dollars of loans to local companies.
Look, the loans are a great thing. They have been a lifeline for way too many businesses trying to keep paying their bills and keep people working while we distance, wear masks, stay at home and try to get this pandemic behind us. But the sheer volume of businesses and the dollar amounts do make me worry that many won’t survive. They may make it through this year, perhaps, but when the payments come due some will likely fail. I hope I’m wrong. As I said earlier, many of these folks are friends and neighbors.
How to describe first half of 2020? That’s just too big a question with too much still unknown. When the phrase “life-changing” seems like an understatement, well, let’s just say we’re in uncharted territory. But I’m always hopeful, always the optimist. Humans adapt, take our setbacks and the sucker punches and get back up, roll up our sleeves and get to work. What are the other options?