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Economy

Colorado business chambers prepared for the worst during coronavirus. It turns out things weren’t so bad.

Rampant business closures did not happen among members of local business chambers. Some say membership rose as businesses received federal aid and looked for help weathering the COVID storm.

Stephen Martin works on his laptop Friday, April 30, 2021 at the Homa Cafe and Bar in the Kinship Landing Hotel. The four story boutique hotel in downtown Colorado Springs opened in January. (Mark Reis, Special to the Colorado Sun)
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The business community braced for the worst when coronavirus restrictions began in March 2020. But more than a year later, it wasn’t as bad as they thought.

Early on in the pandemic, Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce waived membership fees to let local businesses most in need of help use its resources and webinars on federal financial relief.

And most members stuck around. New ones even joined. The Mesa County organization now has 825 members, 25 more members than before COVID began. And, surprisingly, there weren’t widespread closures among members, president and CEO Diane Schwenke said. 

“We didn’t have as many (go out of business) as I think a lot of people had predicted, or thought we would,” Schwenke said. “The federal assistance was huge and helped a lot of them stay in business. If they were really weak going into the pandemic, they didn’t make it. But we only had a handful.”

Diane Schwenke, president of Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, standing outside her office in Grand Junction on July 6, 2021. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

With Colorado’s economy in recovery, membership at local business chambers across the state is picking back up again. Many chambers, which traditionally provide networking for local companies, last year were focused on helping members get federal Paycheck Protection Program loans and taking a lead in community events. That helped attract potential members, especially at organizations like the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Boulder County.

“Apart from doing all the business activities that chambers do, there were a whole bunch of issues that we also helped with, like vaccinations,” said Berenice Garcia Tellez, vice chair of the chamber. “We hosted two clinics in Longmont and Lafayette to get community members, not just businesses, to get vaccinated.”

Garcia Tellez said the Latino Chamber also provided technical assistance for business loans, helping to identify the right documents, translate the jargon and apply for grants and federal loans. 

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“Sometimes we bring our computer because they might not have one available at their restaurant or shop,” she said. 

Membership at the Latino Chamber is up 84% from 2019, she said.

Different business organizations across the state also reported that recovery is strong and the worst wasn’t so bad. Good Business Colorado, which represents small businesses statewide that support “equitable community” policies, had its largest membership growth last year, nearly doubling members to 381 from 195 in February 2020. The Gunnison Country Chamber of Commerce is currently in its annual renewal month and is hoping to reach a 98% retention rate.

Meanwhile, the Colorado Chamber of Commerce experienced a dip in membership during the pandemic. Right now, it has a 91% retention rate and even as some members had to pull out financially, others stepped up even more financially, said Cynthia Meyer, a chamber spokeswoman.

“In conversations with the leaders of our member companies about their continued support in challenging times, we heard over and over that ‘we’re in this together for the long-term,’” she said in an email. 

State data is also showing that operating businesses are holding steady. According to first-quarter business filings, new business filings or renewals were both up, compared to a year earlier, which included two non-pandemic months. 

New entity filings increased 32.2% in the first quarter compared to a year-ago, described as “a new record, illustrating entrepreneurship in the midst of the recession,” according to the quarterly report by the Colorado Secretary of State

Among existing businesses that renewed, there was a 1% increase in year-over-year filings, coming in at 173,970 during the quarter. That indicates many businesses survived the year. Though in the same report, the Secretary of State noted that there was 2.9% increase from a year-ago quarter of businesses that filed to dissolve. Approximately 10,658 took the effort to let the state know they would no longer be operating.

Last year, more than 109,000 small businesses in Colorado were approved for $10.4 billion in federal Paycheck loans, which provided up to two months of payroll funding that was eligible for 100% forgiveness if used primarily to pay staff. PPP loans were available again this year for new or existing businesses that needed a second loan. In Colorado, 87,088 small businesses were approved for a new or second loan this year for a total of $4.7 billion, according to U.S. Small Business Administration data.

Many of the chambers were allowed to apply for a PPP this year, including the Durango Chamber of Commerce. So far, the organization hasn’t had to tap into it as membership has improved, said Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce.

“As far as our budget, and everything that I’m looking at, we’re looking very good,” Llewellyn said. 

And that’s true for its members, too, even though numbers are down from before COVID.

“In Durango, we’re seeing a similar type of thing with a robust economy, especially going through the end of the summer months,” he said. “Hotel occupancies are looking very strong, and last year, we led the state with 85% hotel occupancy in Durango.” 

But it’s not all rosy. Several businesses did not make it another year, though the pandemic wasn’t always 100% to blame. Some just felt that 2021 would continue to be a challenge, including at one of Colorado’s oldest family-owned shoe stores, Benge’s Shoe Store, which closed in downtown Grand Junction at the end of 2020. 

“I just know it’s time to move on,” owner Bruce Benge told The Daily Sentinel last year. 

Durango’s chamber is now at around 750 members, down about 50 or 6.3%, compared to before the pandemic. But Llewellyn said renewals are starting up again and there’s a lot of interest from newcomers. It’s also much better than he had imagined.  

“A year ago I thought we would be down 30% roughly,” he said. “But it has rebounded. As everyone else did, the most overused word during COVID, we pivoted. We offered virtual trainings and worked with our members, surveyed our members to find out what their needs were, and found professionals that could teach those courses. And we integrated those and opened them up (to everyone). We did not charge for any of those programs throughout the pandemic.”

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The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce has seen little change with its pre-pandemic members. But a new program it started as the state went into COVID shut down last year resulted in 600 new members. Through its Small Business Development Center, it offered a free one-year membership to any business owner who asked for help. Many new members are sole proprietors and small businesses with fewer than 10 employees — groups the chamber didn’t heavily focus on before.

“We adapted that mindset and (began) engaging the smaller businesses that we weren’t necessarily” reaching before, said China Califf, director of the Denver Metro Small Business Development Center. “I think we would have gotten there anyway, but I think the pandemic forced our hand. We can’t just look at large businesses, we can’t just look at small businesses. You have to be really broad. A one person ‘sole prop’ is a business and has value to our economy.”

Businesses are finding they aren’t dealing with basic survival anymore but rather, the old problems of the past, such as the difficulty of finding enough workers, said Brittany VanderLinden, assistant director of the Kremmling Area Chamber of Commerce, where the number of members has grown 12% since before the pandemic.

“We didn’t have any businesses go under,” VanderLinden said. “Right now like everybody else, our business struggle right now isn’t the money. It’s finding people to work.”


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