In New Orleans, a city usually humming with tourists, COVID-19 altered the small business scene in ways no one could have anticipated. But when StayLocal, Greater New Orleans’ independent business alliance, surveyed businesses across sectors, it turned out the pandemic was just a single layer.

“We were really able to better understand that there were cascading challenges.”

– Maryann Miller, Program Manager

For instance, a terrible hurricane in 2021 caused damage, outages, and other major business disruptions that added to the pandemic. Business owners admitted it was truly difficult to manage all the things that had changed for them over the course of several years. And those changes were creating a very small margin for success.

So StayLocal got to work, identifying gaps in the already robust infrastructure for crises like major weather events. For example, the survey identified that business owners needed a way to communicate better during extended power outages.

During the hurricane in 2021, some businesses were left with huge inventories of perishables and nowhere to go. Had they been connected with other owners that could lend support, the outcomes might have been different.

To address this need, StayLocal researched best practices and invested in a two-way text communication tool specifically for business owners. Thanks to a quiet hurricane season in 2022, the communication system has not yet been put to the test. However, the StayLocal team is hopeful about the difference it will make for the many service providers, retailers, and food and beverage purveyors within their membership.

One of StayLocal’s key roles is connecting these businesses with each other, encouraging them to think locally for payroll, graphic design, and printing needs. The alliance also keeps an active directory for the public, as well as a separate set of listings for the burgeoning green business sector.

StayLocal plays a role in connecting green professionals with homeowners trying to address flood management on their properties. A growing group of technically skilled leaders in this industry is working to supplement the public infrastructure New Orleans continues to create.

One of the many larger organizations StayLocal partners with is called Thrive, a resource for green-sector professionals who are just starting out or expanding and who identify as BIPOC business owners. StayLocal both attracts candidates for the incubator program at Thrive and brings graduates into the fold.

Prioritizing business owners of color is an important focus for StayLocal, and over the last several years, they have created strong marketing campaigns in response. One annual initiative involves partnering with the city to encourage local leaders and influencers to post shout-outs about their favorite Black-owned businesses on social media. The campaign has had a huge groundswell of support, and StayLocal would love to see that kind of energy year-round.

To that end, the organization has invited an increasing number of Black-owned businesses to their network and StayLocal directory so consumers can specifically choose to support their work. In a study from several years ago, only 2 percent of revenue in Orleans Parish (county) came from minority business owners. That staggering data has StayLocal examining the impediments for these businesses.

“Why are we still accepting a scarcity framework, where well-loved, hardworking, incredibly resourceful business owners are put in the position of having to compete with one another?”

– Maryann Miller, Program Manager

StayLocal is also homing in on the challenge of mental health for business owners across the board. Many act as leaders in their communities, which often lack in economic prosperity. But where can they turn for guidance and space to recharge? This is a question StayLocal is pursuing to complement promising local efforts already underway.

While the waning pandemic has brought some relief and cautious optimism to the local business community, not everyone is ready to give a full sigh of relief. COVID certainly made the importance of local clear for people across the country. But StayLocal’s program manager, Maryann Miller, wishes there was a way to formalize that so it would stay fresh in people’s minds.

“We all know the value of community, especially coming out of what we all experienced.”

– Maryann Miller, Program Manager

It would be amazing if local were the default, and the alliance could move further away from awareness messaging and into more nuance. But consumer behavior demonstrates the ongoing need to identify which stores are chains and which are local and why the community benefits from choosing the latter.

Miller wonders what might be possible with a little imagination. Reduced rent for businesses that employ locals? Opportunities for discounted advertising in regional hubs like the airport? She challenged local champions to imagine what could be done if a million dollars appeared. How might that be invested in local, for the good of local?

Our “Hello! We Are AMIBA” series gathers stories, best practices, strengths, challenges, and equity initiatives from AMIBA Members and Partners. As an alliance, we are AMIBA! Learn more about the American Independent Business Alliance.

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