JAMESTOWN, N.D. — The doors to the Jamestown Civic Center opened at 4 p.m., and in marched shoppers, searching for a snack or a picture frame or the perfect Christmas gift.
For the small business owners waiting for them, it was a welcome sight.
Jerome Dally and his wife, of Montpelier, N.D., sell rustic decor and doll beds. Their business, Cedarworks, is a side-job in their semi-retirement, Dally says. He co-owns a cattle herd with his son, too, but works on his woodworking projects for Cedarworks when he isn’t busy helping with the cattle. The Cedarworks income supplements his ranching income. And much of that income in a normal year comes from vendor shows like the Pride of Dakota Harvest Showcase held in Jamestown Oct. 9-10. They typically sell at about 14 shows in a year.
“This is our fifth show, our first indoor show,” Dally said.
At the four previous outdoor shows, attendance was down among vendors and shoppers. And while sales at the shows were pretty good, Dally said sales aren’t at the level they are most years.
COVID-19 has disrupted many businesses, and small businesses have been far from immune from the effects. Some, like Cedarworks, have seen their normal sales opportunities canceled. Others, like restaurants, were forced to close for a time or switch to new business models. Others dealt with supply chain disruptions. For many rural businesses, the pandemic has meant changing how they do business, waiting for a better day or seizing new opportunities. And with many unknowns remaining, business owners still are looking for a new normal.
“I think the thing that has been really the most frustrating for everybody that's involved in the pandemic is just the uncertainty of not knowing when protocols are supposed to start, when protocols are supposed to end,” said Rani Bhattacharyya, a community economics Extension educator with University of Minnesota. “And I think it's been exhausting, both for businesses as well as for customers.”
'Born, raised and harvested'
The U.S. Census Bureau since March has been conducting weekly surveys of small businesses throughout the country. A plurality of businesses — including those in Upper Midwest states — have consistently reported having moderate problems operating. Nationally, most small businesses reported having decreased levels of revenue from March to June; since August, most report having returned to pre-pandemic levels of revenue. A small percentage even report improving business conditions through the pandemic.
Last summer, Friesz decided to start marketing some of her lamb through retail cuts. She has lambs processed at a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspected facility and sells cuts of meat and some processed products. Tellmamn's Market in New Salem sells her meat products, which have been popular.
With such a new business, Friesz can’t say for sure if the lack of vendor shows or other restrictions have had an impact on her venture. But she said people certainly have been open to buying local products. She sells some, including dryer balls, out of her insurance agency in New Salem. And the meat products, in particular, have been popular. She recalls selling meat in a Fargo, N.D., parking lot earlier in the pandemic at a time when meat availability seemed to be reduced as packing plants closed or slowed down.
“The amount of people that were in that parking lot coming and almost begging for food, I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Part of that, she said, is that people want to know where they’re getting their food and household products. As she waited for customers to arrive at her booth at the Pride of Dakota Harvest Showcase in Jamestown, she considered that a positive for her business.
“Everything we do is born, raised and harvested in North Dakota,” she said.
Regardless of size, they found some commonalities that worked. Economic development entities provided information and resources on programs that could help businesses, they created small business relief programs in addition to state or federal funding, they provided technical assistance for completing applications for assistance, and they provided regulatory relief. And they tried to convince people to visit their local businesses, Bhattacharyya said.
“A lot of communities went in and started up shop local campaigns for their downtown retail areas,” she said.
“For those involved in the effort, it was emotionally moving; businesses like salons were able to pay one month’s rent, thanks to coupons purchased for 469 haircuts,” Bhattacharyya’s report said.
Bhattacharyya said supporting businesses during the pandemic can mean more than just shopping in physical stores. It can mean visiting local businesses’ websites or leaving positive comments on Facebook pages.
“But I think just letting them know that you're there and that you're thinking about them is really the most important part,” she said.
Local restaurants will need consistent support.
“I know restaurants are particularly hit hard and will continue to bear the brunt of a lot of COVID-19, so if there's any way that you can actually cater to your local restaurants in either take out or delivery, that would be a really helpful thing to do,” she said.
The business makes and sells about 60 products, which are sold at the storefront in Valley City as well as at tourist attractions in North Dakota and online. The store had to close for a time during the pandemic, which decreased the money coming in. And a main source of business for Eagle’s Nest in recent years has been Pride of Dakota shows like the one in Jamestown, many of which have been canceled this year. The pandemic, Mary Simonson said, has hurt business.
“I think it will cause us to do less, have less employment available. If you don’t have money, you can’t buy inventory,” she said. “It will have an impact for sure.”
Simonson said the people of Valley City were unhappy when the store closed temporarily but have been supportive in shopping there. Likewise, Dally said Cedarworks has done some business through word of mouth and the local community in Montpelier, N.D.
“Community support has been good. People wouldn’t have to turn out at all at these events, but they do,” Dally said. “None of us expected things to go the way they did. But it’s just like farming and raising cattle and anything else. There’s the high points and the low points and we’ll get through it.”
And while it might be a low point right now, Bhattacharyya thinks good times could follow. Many people reported starting new businesses in Minnesota in April, she said.
"I think that a lot of entrepreneurs out there need to think about, you know, maybe starting their business now or planning to open up when . . . the restrictions lessen," she said. "And I think that they're going to be the drivers of our opening economy once we get through this."