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“The new normal:” Experts at UM, across Missoula helping small businesses adjust

Downtown Missoula
Posted at 10:47 AM, Apr 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-14 12:47:35-04

MISSOULA — A team of economic experts have banded together to help Missoula’s entrepreneurs and small businesses navigate the complexities of the coronavirus pandemic, offering a single point of entry for guidance and advice.

The program represents a collection of partners led by the University of Montana and its economic development programs, which are now helping small business navigate the impacts of COVID-19.

“Providing timely advice and referring businesses to other relevant programs and resources is something our Accelerate Montana programs do as a matter of course,” said Paul Gladen, executive director of the program. “But at this time of acute need, we’re excited to play an expanded role.”

A number of businesses across Missoula and much of Montana have been forced to close at the direction of healthcare officials working to slow the spread of the virus. The results have left many people unemployed, and a number of small businesses have seen their revenues dwindle.

Congress offered a lifeline in a relief package passed last month, but it can be difficult to navigate, especially for the small businesses it was intended to help.

Gladen said Accelerate Montana and its underlying programs, including the Missoula Small Business Development Center at UM, can help business prepare their loan application for funding under the relief bill.

Entrepreneurs can also seek coaching under the UM program. In the few days since the effort launched, Gladen said, a number of businesses have sought advice.

“We’ve had about 20 requests so far, and we now have a daily call with our Accelerate team, the Missoula Economic Partnership and other entrepreneurs,” Gladen said. “We’re going through those calls and looking at who’s best to follow up with and seeing how exactly we can help. We’re getting people the information that’s available and helping with some of the choices that they’re facing.”

Gladen said most of the questions fielded by the Accelerate team pertain to the CAREs Act and its two loan programs, including the Paycheck Protection Program. Some businesses are well suited to the offerings of the bill while others, including solo entrepreneurs and single proprietors may face challenges.

“There’s a little bit a of gray area about about some of that,” Gladen said. “But we’re getting a lot of those funding questions related to the CAREs Act and other people are trying to figure out how to adjust and adapt their business.”

Over the weekend, Stockman Bank alone had received federal approval for 1,500 loans through the Paycheck Protection Program for Montana businesses, totaling around $225 million. The bank has been active in issuing updates to the program and the number of customers applying for support.

The Missoula Economic Partnership also has worked to help small businesses navigate the current environment. It’s now part of the UM team and is leading the Missoula County Economic Recovery Taskforce.

“Many small business owners in Missoula County do not have a dedicated team to help them navigate the resources established by the CARES Act,” said MEP president and CEO Grant Kier. “We’re asking (the UM program) to help businesses ensure they receive the guidance they need.”

Gladen said many small businesses are looking to shift their model, like moving toward online delivery. Others are using Zoom and new technologies to engage with customers.

When the dust settles and the pandemic passes, Gladen anticipates a new normal. And while no one can predict the future, he said the UM program can help businesses anticipate and plan for that new environment.

“There’s no doubt it will be some form of new normal and behaviors will change,” he said. “But I’m actually bullish for a state like Montana that’s more rural if can learn how to leverage technology and the different approaches to serve customers and engage.

“Missoula and Montana will be places people still want to live. When we do emerge from this and the local economy gets back to some form of new normal, I think Montana is going to do very well in that environment.”