Business owners and consumers alike were left reeling when Governor Kate Brown’s Stay Home orders shuttered thousands of businesses across the state in March.
“It was a tremendously stressful time financially and emotionally for our family,” reflected Iwona Erbe, who owns a preschool in Happy Valley.
For mechanical engineer John Staylor, 2020 was initially shaping up to be the best year yet. He had just started a new business in the emerging electric vehicle industry and was leveraging his experience in aerospace for contracts with large companies. And then the pandemic hit.
“The timing was just wrong,” Staylor said. “COVID had other plans.”
Small businesses are one of the most valuable parts of our economy and county. When small businesses do well, it lifts up the entire community. The opposite is also true. This ripple effect, for better or for worse, underscored the need for immediate action.
Clackamas County’s Economic Development division in the Business and Community Services Department rose to the occasion to help bring our small business community much-needed relief in the form of a grant program.
Apply by Nov. 6.
By mid-August the county and partner agency, Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon (MESO), awarded $420,000 in grants to 145 small businesses that were adversely effected by COVID-19. The funding came from the county and Business Oregon, and the grants ranged from $2,500 to nearly $10,000 — all earmarked for small businesses with 25 or fewer employees.
In seeking applications, the county and MESO made sure to reach out to businesses owned by historically disadvantaged business owners in our community to help ensure fair and equitable distribution of the grant awards.
The small businesses are located throughout the county, from Canby to Sandy and Milwaukie to Mt. Hood, and provide a wide variety of services to residents, including photography, beauty care, children’s learning, high tech support, food services, home repair, cleaning services and much more.
Here are some of their stories.
Navigating an unfamiliar landscape: Online preschool
Iwona Erbe moved from Poland to Oregon with big dreams after graduating college. After she and her husband started a family, she opened IQ Preschool out of her home in NE Portland. It wasn’t long before the family uprooted their lives and relocated to a larger house in Happy Valley to accommodate the growing business.
“The house was meant for it,” Erbe recalled.
Erbe and her family settled easily into the community, building strong networks with friends and neighbors. Life was good, and so was business. But when the Stay Home order came down earlier this year, Erbe had to close her doors, a shock compounded by her husband’s sudden job loss.
It was a bleak moment, but the Erbes adapted quickly. Inspired by a parent who was a school teacher, Erbe launched a distance learning program during April and May that was offered to families regardless of their ability to pay tuition.
Operating her business on Zoom was uncharted territory, especially when it came to working with preschoolers. She developed a live, interactive curriculum that included puppets, art, music and cooking to accommodate young attention spans. Her whole family pitched in to make it work, including her husband, son and daughter who play musical instruments.
“I’ve learned that I have to bring my business to the next level,” Erbe said.
This fall, the preschool is debuting a hybrid model that combines limited in-person sessions with distance learning. The limited number of children allowed in person means Erbe has lost clients, but she hopes to serve as many families as possible with the ongoing online program that runs Mondays and Fridays.
The $2,500 grant will go toward operational costs, equipment such as computers needed for virtual learning and toward an outdoor sink for children to wash their hands.
The grant heralds a forgotten feeling: hope. With it, Erbe is able to gear up for the new school year. “I can do this now,” she said.
More than a grant—a lifeline
For John Staylor, owner of Full Fast Technology, the effects of COVID-19 on his new electric vehicle business started as a trickle effect.
“As other industries slow down, so does mine,” he explained.
Staylor started his company with 30 years of diverse experience in mechanical design. Although his company focuses on electric vehicles, he still consults on aerospace projects. The common thread that runs through his work is packaging electronics.
Staylor's work can be seen right in the Clackamas County community. One of his most recent projects involved working on the Willamette Shore Trolley, a streetcar that uses electric vehicle technology to provide transportation from Lake Oswego to Portland.
The economic impacts of COVID-19 hit his electric vehicle clients hard, forcing them to reduce or drop his services. To make matters worse, a decrease in air travel resulted in the loss of his aerospace projects.
As work fizzled, things began to look bad. The grant funds came at a crucial time.
“They say timing is everything,” he said. “You have extended to me a lifeline to keep me in business.”
The $2,500 grant will help Staylor purchase needed computer equipment, pay for internet service, make a mortgage payment, and invest in advertising. While the funds help keep him afloat, Staylor acknowledges this remains a tenuous situation.
He isn’t out of the woods yet, and says he’s counting on the economy improving.
“Until we get this pandemic under control, we can’t get the economy under control.”
He looks forward to the days when his specific and hard-earned skillset will be back in demand.
At the end of the day, Staylor says he considers himself “one of the luckier ones.”