By Loren Lindler
The COVID-19 pandemic surely made its impact on many rural communities recently. However, small towns are coming together like never before, exposing their true resiliency. And, rural Berrien County is no exception.
Lisa Smart, Executive Director of the Berrien County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Authority, not only works with local businesses and develops new ways to bring in business on a daily basis, but she found the Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Authority serving a different role through the pandemic; this role was being a voice for the community.
“Through the chamber, we have served as the voice into the community for the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Smart. “We took on the role as leaders with the community taskforce group.”
During the wake of the pandemic, Berrien County Chamber of Commerce recognized the need for intentional communication for their members and businesses within the community to breakdown information. Therefore, the taskforce group was formed. The taskforce included people like the chamber of commerce staff, chairmen of the chamber of commerce, county commission, school superintendent, sheriff, and the hospital administrator. Smart commended Governor Kemp for proactively sharing updates, but many businesses and locals in Berrien County still had questions about how everything applied to them, specifically.
Smart knew if they wanted to provide the most up-to-date information, they would all have the work together to do so, which is why the taskforce was instrumental in the execution of community updates.
As the weeks passed and things continued to change, the taskforce remained in place to ensure that the community knew exactly what was going on. They featured “Chamber Chat” videos on their social media channels, specifically Facebook, each Wednesday at 10 a.m. in hopes of keeping the community on the same page.
A new webpage on the chamber’s website was implemented as well where those in the community can find all information regarding the pandemic. The chamber wanted one place where people could find information concerning changes within the county and from the state.
“This past week as I have been out and about, I have been overwhelmed by the people that have stopped me and thanked us,” said Smart. “They would say that they couldn’t understand what was being said on the governmental side of things, but y’all [the chamber] made it so much clearer for how it impacted us here in the county.”
They also continue to serve as an information hub for those in the area. The chamber of commerce encouraged people to call if they had any questions, and they would make sure they sent them to the right place. This additional information hub service helped coordinate a $100,000 donation from a business located in Nashville to help the local food pantry serve the community.
They also used their social media outlets to share how each business adapted in their own way. Between curbside pickups, meals for those in need, and “Local Hero” bags, Berrien County learned how to continue doing business and serve the community in light of the situation.
“During this time, we learned to rely on each other within the community rather than going outside of the community,” described Smart. “The community has shown unbelievable support for the businesses from the citizens and vice versa and it is truly a community in Berrien County.”
Berrien County is very diverse in their industries, but as Smart explained, agriculture is their largest industry.
“The agriculture community has been hit very hard,” said Smart. “There are a lot of meat producers, including pork.”
She spoke of one producer in the community who typically sold his meat to a processor. Due to the pandemic, that processing plant had to shut down. In response, the producer went to USDA, found an eligible small processor, obtained licensing to be able to sell his product, and purchased a meat truck. He sold his product in downtown Nashville one Saturday and hundreds of people lined up to buy the meat.
“The response from the community was overwhelming,” Smart astounded. Members of the community realized they could indeed sell their products in Berrien County rather than having to go elsewhere.
As circumstances are changing every day and businesses are reopening their doors, Berrien County is standing together now more than ever before, and they are ready to continue the fight.
“We as a chamber are transitioning from pandemic mode to recovery mode,” explained Smart. “We’re calling it the ‘Bounce Back Berrien’ campaign and were doing this to try to bring an influx of cash back into our economy.”
The campaign consists of three objectives: Chamber Chats, Berrien Bucks, and the Safety Improvement Grant.
First, just as they did the Chamber Chats during the pandemic, they are going to continue their efforts in hopes of communicating with the community how businesses are safely reopening. They want to encourage people to come support those businesses as they return to a new “normal.”
Next, Berrien Bucks can be used like cash at local businesses. They can be purchased from the Berrien County Chamber of Commerce and used at a retailer. After they are redeemed, the business turns them in to the chamber for cash.
In an effort to put money back into the economy, the chamber has created an incentive. If you buy $20 of Berrien Bucks, the Chamber is giving $5 for a total of $25 Berrien Bucks. As of Wednesday, May 13, they had sold over $8,500 worth. Since the chamber is adding $5, they had added $2,000, totaling to over $10,000 put back into the community already.
“People are giving them as graduation gifts, the school system bought them for teacher appreciation for every teacher in the county. I am having other businesses buy them, individuals are buying them,” enlightened Smart. “This has been a great way to infuse cash back into our community.”
Finally, Smart shared that in order for many businesses to reopen, they have to take drastic measures to ensure their business was ready and safe. Many had to purchase personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, among a number of other things. Smart explained that it is, in fact, a financial burden for these businesses.
The Business Improvement Grant offered through the chamber is transitioning into the Safety Improvement Grant. Chamber members businesses can apply for the grant to help with some of the costs of reopening their doors.
“We’re looking forward to getting back to some form of normalcy,” said Smart. “Though we don’t know what that may look like, Berrien County is ready to move forward.”
As many businesses were closed and the world seemed to stand still, things are beginning to look onward in Berrien County. Smart has had a few takeaways since COVID-19 began earlier in the year.
“I’ve been reminded of the resiliency of our community and just how much living in rural Georgia is such a big benefit,” said Smart. “You know your neighbors and you want to help your neighbors. People are there for each other during this difficult time.”
Furthermore, she stressed the importance of listening during these times. Even though someone may not directly say what they need, most of all, they may just need to talk and a listening ear to hear their specific challenges.
Amidst businesses closing temporarily, restaurants limiting their hours and services, and so much more during these times, the time has come, now, to “Bounce Back Berrien.”