St. George Area Chamber supports relaxing virus risk level, continues financial support of business community

Local resident, small business owner and economic development visionary Don Willie leads the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce through hard times as its president and CEO | Photo courtesy of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Many shoppers and businesses are eager to get back to a resemblance of normal life following Gov. Gary Herbert’s announcement Thursday easing the state’s COVID-19 risk level.

“It will be nice to eat out at a nice restaurant again and take a stroll through Zion (National Park),” Maryanne O’Neil said while on a shopping trip to Smith’s Marketplace in St. George. “I will still wear my mask, as much as I hate doing it, and I will still keep my distance from other people as much as possible, but it’s nice to know that I can start leaving my home more. I desperately need a haircut and color. Gray doesn’t look good on me.”

The move to lower the coronavirus risk level is also supported by the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber President and CEO Don Willie, who is also a member of the state’s COVID-19 Economic Response Task Force, said that along with his promise to stand up and protect populations at risk for the disease, he doesn’t believe that the state government has rushed into the decision to drop the risk level.

Going from the state-labeled “orange” to “yellow” risk does not represent a power grab or an opportunity to score political points, Willie said, explaining that it is the chance to do what is right and what is justified.

“I believe the government has the best interest of the community in mind and the best interest of the economy,” he said. “If you look at what (state) revenues are, you are looking at a 10% slash, and that’s a big chunk of money.”

“They are back to the drawing board,” Willie said of the state Legislature’s appropriations funding for state, county and city governments. “This is a serious matter.”

Don Willie at a St. George Area Chamber of Commerce event, St. George, Utah, Jan. 29, 2020 | File photo by David Louis, St. George News

To support area businesses, the chamber has established its Greater Together Small Business Resilience Fund, which provides short-term funding for small businesses with 50 or fewer full-time equivalent employees throughout Washington County. They are offering up to $20,000 in loans at zero interest for up to five years.

When the loans are paid back, the revenue will fund ongoing efforts to support businesses in the future during economic hard times and economic development to generate community prosperity, including other potential decisions the chamber’s board may wish to support.

The businesses must be based in southwest Utah and hold a current business license in Washington County. The “gap” funding must be used for payroll, rent, utility payments, upgrades in computer hardware, software and marketing efforts to pivot business models because of COVID-19.

Reporting on how the funds are used is required and repayment begins 90 days after the expiration of a county declaration of emergency.

So far, the chamber’s efforts have awarded 61 local businesses with more than $852,000 in funding. The total fund amount is $930,000, Willie said.

“The chamber has had our members’ backs since day one,” Willie said. “We not only support our members, but the entire business community to help them get through this time to keep doors open.”

At the end of the day, Willie said, Greater Together and other funding resources have “moved the needle significantly” and allowed many businesses to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic stronger.

The Greater Together Small Business Resilience Fund includes participation between Canyon Media, Washington County, the city of St. George, Washington City, Santa Clara City, the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce, Walker Edison LLC, Cache Valley Bank, Zions Bank, Mountain America Credit Union, Southern Utah Home Builders Association, State Bank of Southern Utah, Alta Bank and other private sector organizations and individuals.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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