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Unmatched resolve: reflections on a 56-county small business road trip

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MONTANA — As director for the U.S. Small Business Administration Montana District, I have the unique opportunity to work with entrepreneurs and small business owners across Montana to help provide capital and connections that support growth for our state’s businesses. This year has kept my team busy as we’ve worked with local lenders to secure forgivable loans for 24,000 small business owners through the Paycheck Protection Program and other SBA lending programs designed to help keep businesses afloat during the extreme challenges we’ve faced.

Earlier this month, I approached my team and told them that I wanted to end the year on a positive note – doing something awesome to encourage small business owners while also challenging Montanans to shop local. Through this, we created the Peaks to Plains Business Resiliency Tour, a 3,400-mile road trip that took us to small businesses in all 56 Montana counties within seven days. This journey allowed us to hear incredible stories of grit, ingenuity, and community commitment from business owners in every county of the state. 

In one county, a business owner told us how members of their community came in to buy gift certificates, only to rip them up – they just wanted to do their part to ensure the store would get through the pandemic. A floral boutique told us how they had put in a sizeable flower order before the local prom was canceled. With the significant revenue-generating event no longer existent, the flower shop encouraged local residents to buy a flower and give it to someone as a random act of kindness. Within hours, the flowers were sold out. 

A clothing store set up a “blessing board” that allowed shoppers to provide discounts to certain groups of people like healthcare workers, first responders, pastors and teachers. More businesses than ever took to social media to promote their goods and services, and restaurants pivoted business models in order to safely provide food services for their hometowns. Local lenders went above and beyond to assist businesses with lending programs and the financial complexities imposed by the pandemic. This year has truly demonstrated how Montanans come together during challenging times. Neighbors help neighbors. Communities support their own. 

While nearly every business told us of the incredible ways their community sustained them, we heard stories of struggle and tragedy, too. We were moved as the owner of a rural coffee shop told us how the coronavirus took the life of her mom and business partner this year despite the implementation of aggressive health precautions. As we listened to her story, we watched customers come the shop and break into tears as they embraced the owner and told her how much her mom and their business meant to the town. 

These stories – and dozens of others – demonstrate the essential qualities of this sector, because in Montana, small businesses are our communities. Statewide, 99.3 percent of businesses are classified as “small businesses,” and that pool employs more than 65 percent of our state’s workforce. To put it simply, in order for Montana to succeed, small businesses must succeed.

The SBA has played a pivotal role in supporting small businesses this year amidst the pandemic, but no amount of aid compares to customers in stores or families in restaurants. Many locally owned retailers earn roughly 50 percent of annual revenues during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was critical that people continue to shop and eat local during the past several weeks.

Soon, we’ll welcome in a new year where we’ll share more of the incredible stories we heard in the last few weeks. While it’s impossible to predict what 2021 holds, I’m confident that Montana small businesses will sustain the unmatched resolve that has carried them through this year. I’m hopeful people will continue shopping and dining locally. 

Brent Donnelly is the Small Business Administration District Director for Montana.

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