Who else is tired of hearing the phrases ‘uncharted territory,’ ‘these uncertain times,’ or ‘unprecedented challenges,’? Since mid-March, we’ve all heard these phrases more times than we can count to describe the current situation our companies, organizations and communities face.

The COVID-19 crisis and its impacts are far-reaching and will certainly be felt in the months and perhaps years to come.

Recovery from this crisis is top of mind for everybody, including in small, rural communities. These are places where the closure of one anchor business in a downtown can be catastrophic, or one major employer struggling to bring back employees can mean a sizable portion of residents are out of work.

Times like these are when collaboration and networks are more important than ever, and industry groups like manufacturer councils and strong merchant associations provide built-in venues for peers to share ideas and best practices.

Lacking a clear road map for getting back to prosperity after a global pandemic is daunting, especially in geographic areas where peer business groups like this simply do not exist.

Our ‘small but mighty’ rural team at The Right Place identified this gap in the communities where we live and work, which was the spark that inspired our recent ‘Re-Engaging The Rural Economy’ virtual round-table series.

Catalyzing economic and community development initiatives in five Western Michigan counties – Ionia, Lake, Montcalm, Newaygo and Oceana – we see the value in connecting businesses with their peers, not just locally, but regionally as well. Rural areas in our region have many things in common, thus positioning them to learn a great deal from one another as we navigate this complicated landscape of re-opening our companies and economies.

Over the course of seven days, we convened interactive discussions via ZOOM with participants from all over the region. These were not ‘sit-and-get’ webinars – rather, they were interactive, discussion-based sessions focused on idea-sharing between businesses and organizations in similar industries.

During each webinar we featured one or two special guest co-hosts who were either experts on the topic of the day, or business owners who had implemented innovative solutions on their own. Each session focused on a different industry or topic, ranging from manufacturing to human resources and talent, independent retail, dining establishments and even rural tourism post-COVID.

While most attendees were from the five aforementioned counties, throughout the course of the series attendees from 20+ Michigan counties joined in.

Our Key Takeaways

  • The capacity of our local manufacturing companies to develop their own COVID-19 response plans varies greatly from firm to firm, meaning that example documents and procedures are critically important.
  • The path to re-opening hinges greatly on personal beliefs, comfort levels and risk tolerances. As you can imagine, the whole spectrum is represented in our rural businesses.
  • Gauging the attitudes of your customers is essential.
  • This crisis can – and should – be used to re-think business models and innovate wherever possible. As Bob Negen aptly stated – now is the time to “get serious about getting good” at what we do.
  • Adopting new technology out of necessity – think online ordering for restaurants – can be a lifeline during a crisis but can morph into a cornerstone of your business moving forward.
  • Localizing supply chains when possible can help mitigate severe disruptions in crisis such as this.
  • Sometimes businesses are not necessarily looking for someone to give them the answer to an issue – but instead just want an opportunity to talk through options and possibilities.

The virtual round-table series received overwhelmingly positive feedback, with over 95% of attendees saying they would recommend it to a colleague and attend future sessions.

For those reasons, our rural team is working on future sessions and topics to continue the dialogue, create new networks throughout our rural counties and further arm our businesses with best practices to weather this storm.

Missed the round-tables? Watch them here.

This blog was written by Director of Business Development for The Right Place, Travis Alden. Travis assists The Right Place with its rural economic development efforts by overseeing its business development team members in Montcalm, Newaygo, Oceana and Lake counties. Travis also coordinates business development activities in Ionia County.