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Ohio Valley Small Businesses Weather COVID-19 Storm

Photo by Derek Redd At Buffalo Creek Country and Primitive Decor in Wheeling’s Centre Market, owners Bill and Pat Rice stayed strong through the COVID-19 pandemic because they remained debt-free.

WHEELING — As the COVID-19 pandemic sunk its talons into the Ohio Valley, small business owners weren’t just worried about their physical health, which was a serious concern. Their economic health was important, too.

A list of restrictions – among them, how many customers in a business at one time, if that business could stay open at all — kept traffic through those shops low. That kept revenues low as well.

Within those tough times and turmoil, businesses found ways to keep the faith, whether it was with some ingenuity or some prudent financial moves. And as the landscape around the pandemic continues to improve, those businesses are looking toward a stronger future.

Del. Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, also serves as president of the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce.

She said that early in the pandemic, businesses were told that shutdowns and limitations would just be short-term situations. Yet as those limitations stretched from weeks to months, frustration grew.

After a while, Storch said, frustration turned into creativity as a way to navigate the new market that was thrust upon them.

“I’ve said a lot of times how enjoyable it was for me as a local Chamber president to see the creative minds at work with how they adapted and what they tried,” Storch said.

One idea she often mentions is from Centre Market boutique Ash & Tin.

The shop offered “mystery ‘give’ bags” for purchase. Customers could buy a $35 bag with about $100 worth of mystery items or a $55 bag with about $175 worth. The customers could keep what they liked from the bags and give or donate what they didn’t. The shop then took $5 from each sale to help purchase $10 gift cards from local and small businesses to give to healthcare providers.

Storch said that inventiveness wasn’t too startling. She always has believed in the spirit and gumption of local business owners.

“It’s not really surprising because entrepreneurs obviously have grit to become entrepreneurs,” Storch said. They’re the ones that make the world go round. Small businesses are the largest part of our employee base. It’s not for the weak of heart. COVID of course was a huge wave to ride, but so many said that nobody is going to be responsible for my making it except for me, so I’m going to make it.”

Next door to Ash & Tin in Centre Market, at Buffalo Creek Country and Primitive Decor, owners Bill and Pat Rice had to deal with both the health and economic hurdles of the pandemic. Both tested positive for COVID-19 last year and Bill Rice spent time in the hospital in November because of it. The shop had to be closed intermittently, including during the crucial month of December. January and February were struggles, too, due to both the pandemic and bad weather.

While there were some frustrations, Bill Rice said there wasn’t as much anxiety as there might have been at other local shops. The reason: the couple didn’t have any debt when it came to their inventory.

“One thing about my store, everything you see in here is paid for,” he said. “We don’t owe anybody and that’s why we could stay open. I know some merchants who load up and put it all on a credit card. I don’t do that. I knew I was covered.”

As spring progresses, the business outlook keeps getting sunnier, Bill Rice said. The lean months of January and February have given way to the more robust months of March and April. COVID numbers have improved significantly from January’s peak, business limitations have lifted and more customers are coming through the door.

“We’ve had people come in from Fairmont,” he said. “And they had been Googling and they saw our store, and they told us, ‘Your store is what brought us to Wheeling and Centre Market.’ And then they shop at the other stores, too.”

The COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a major test for Ohio Valley small businesses. Those that weathered the worst of it should be proud of what they have been able to accomplish, Storch said.

“If it were me, I’d say I feel very empowered, because you made it through the storm,” Storch said. “I can’t imagine another time in our lifetime where a business has had to adapt to such circumstances.”

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