By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Mayors from Alabama’s largest cities spoke at the Business Council of Alabama’s virtual conference on Wednesday giving updates on how their local business communities have handled the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mayors from Montgomery, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Mobile and Huntsville spoke about working with the private sector to handle communities’ needs, especially that of small businesses.
“The pandemic created a situation where there was greater collaboration between business and government than I have experienced since I’ve been here,” said Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson during the virtual event.
Engage Alabama is the BCA’s two-day online conference that is replacing the yearly event at Point Clear due to safety concerns about the coronavirus.
BCA President and CEO Katie Boyd Britt said that this year’s goal was to provide expertise and resources for Alabama’s business community on how to handle the ongoing hardships created by the pandemic.
Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle discussed the amount of adaptation and inventiveness Huntsville’s large bio-tech, technology, retail and manufacturing businesses have had to undergo in order to survive.
He said the way businesses have had to adapt to at-home work or change their entire marketing strategy has been very impressive.
“They created solutions rather than look at it as a problem,” Battle said.
Cities have also been creating specific resources to help small businesses or minority owned businesses through grants or aid programs through their chambers of commerce.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin spoke about the BhamStrong campaign which is a public-private partnership designed to help small business owners but also provides assistance to those hourly workers laid off because of the pandemic.
Helping black-owned and minority-owned businesses was a particular goal for Woodfin in the upcoming months of the pandemic.
“I think going forward we’re going to be spending a lot of energy, a lot of commitment toward building capacity for black-owned businesses,” Woodfin said.
Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed said that over $500,000 in grants have been made available to small businesses and that the city continues to search for ways to make those resources easily reachable to those in need.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said the pandemic has been particularly hard on his city’s small businesses and said out of the 6,500 business licenses in the city, more than half did not make their March tax payments because of the pandemic.
He said the city still got about 87% of its expected revenue, which shows that most of those not able to pay are coming from small businesses. He said it’s important to uplift these businesses because if they shut down, that brings the entire city down.
“At some point when we get through this, the worst things to have in your city is empty store fronts,” Maddox said. “Empty store fronts lead to blighted property, blighted property lead to a downturn within that neighborhood or that business community.”
Maddox said Tuscaloosa’s business community had privately raised around $500,000 for their small business relief fund which helped businesses cover payrolls or rents.
Stimpson also talked about how city hall operations have changed and moved mostly online. He said those changes will probably stay even once the pandemic is over.
“We have learned to do some things because we have absolutely had to do it, but I think there will be a lot of good that comes out of that as we go forward,” Stimpson said.
Many of the mayors also mentioned that the collaboration between them and Gov. Kay Ivey has been helpful in finding ways to help their cities’ needs.
“I think if we continue with the type of collaboration that we’ve had and we continue with the type of spirit, even when we disagree, I think we will find ourselves on the better end of this than we would otherwise,” Reed said.
Ivey is slated to speak during the conference today. Information about how to watch is at Engagealabamabusiness.com.