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Groups Provide Guidance to Businesses Seeking Help

By JOSELYN KING

Staff Writer

Many small businesses struggling through the past year are in need of a little jolt from a “cup of Joe” to help them maneuver a new path into a post-COVID future.

The St. Clairsville Chamber of Commerce sponsors “Coffee and Connections” events to bring their members together each month at the St. Clairsville Eagles. It’s a time for them to meet together and share information about what is working out at their business –and what isn’t — during recent trying times.

It’s just the beginning of opportunities the St. Clairsville Chamber is providing its members, according to Director Wendy Anderson.

“We could have sat on our hands and given the excuse, ‘The pandemic is just killing us right now. We are just going to have to wait,'” she said. “But we don’t wait… If we want to do something, we just do it.”

The chamber is working with entities such as the Belmont County Community Improvement Council and Ohio University Eastern to promote business education classes to business owners wanting them.

This learning is especially helpful to new business owners, Anderson said.

The classes help them determine whether their strategy is good when they enter a market, or if their financing is going to be enough.

There have been several small businesses to open in St. Clairsville during the pandemic, and they have received assistance from the chamber, according to Anderson.

“Whatever they are selling, we market that for them,” she said. “We help them with ribbon cuttings, and give them contacts with other businesses. If they are asking questions, maybe someone can mentor them.

“COVID has been a deterrent for a lot of people,” Anderson said. “It has been something they have to get through to the other side of COVID.”

She said she works with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to get any pertinent information to member businesses that they need. “If we have a small business that is struggling, we can also point them in the right direction,” Anderson said.

Businesses are being encouraged to take advantage of alternatives to in-store traffic. This can include placing their goods online for sale, or offering curb-side pick-up to customers.

“They are taking advantage of all the opportunities available to their business, and making it stronger,” Anderson said.

The chamber sponsored “Food Truck Fridays” each week last summer, bringing traffic to the courthouse plaza each week. Downtown St. Clairsville businesses opened up and had specials during that time.

There were added attractions on the plaza — such as performances by the St Clairsville High School band, and demonstrations by a yoga studio.

“Food Truck Fridays” will start up again in May, and will be joined by “Second Saturdays” events, she said.

Across the river in West Virginia, Wheeling Heritage is continuing its plans to assist both existing small businesses and those wanting to become business owners.

Since the start of the pandemic, the community improvement group has administered two rounds of CARES Act awards to small businesses.

The first round last spring saw $29,000 in grants awarded to the city’s artists, entertainers and small businesses.

Wheeling Heritage recently received $50,000 for a second round of awards. This time the money will be distributed to businesses who have demonstrated a plan to survive post-pandemic, but could use a financial boost to make it happen.

Alex Panas, communications and development manager at Wheeling Heritage, said the grants are in addition to two important programs the group offers new and developing businesses.

She said the first is its Co-Starters Program, a 10-week program during which participants learn about such topics as branding, marketing and price structuring.

“The Co-Starters Program is for any business that already exists, or others who are toying with the idea of starting a business,” she said. “It walks them through the process of building a business plan from start to finish, and getting input from other business owners on what worked and didn’t work for them.”

Financial experts also provide advice regarding financing and marketing.

“And you are going through it with like-minded business owners who all just want to see each other succeed,” Panas said.

Wheeling Heritage has also organized “Show of Hands” events in recent years, where four finalists present their ideas for a new business or expanding a new business.

These events — sponsored by the law firm of Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe — often attract as many as 400 people who pay to vote on the best presentation. Winners take home all money donated, and are guaranteed at least $4,000 to assist in their idea.

But two of the events were cancelled in 2020, and the fall event took place online.

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