While cities, counties, businesses and organizations across the Upstate continue to address public health and economic issues related to the global pandemic, Ten at the Top remains committed to serving as a regional convener and connector to help support local efforts and grow the Upstate’s collective capacity.
To help better understand the concerns and challenges being faced by communities across the Upstate, Ten at the Top recently completed a “Listening Tour” of the seven non-urban counties in the region (all counties except Anderson, Greenville and Spartanburg). Each session included input from leaders from local governments, community organizations, businesses and other local stakeholders.
While each county had its own nuances and distinct approach to responding to the pandemic, there were a number of similarities across the region.
- Most encouragingly, each county reported that overall the response to provide needed services to those facing immediate hardship has been successful in meeting the general needs of all residents, including children, seniors and college students. Another commonality has been a collaborative spirit as many local entities, including some that had not previously worked together, have collaborated to meet the needs of local residents.
- Communication has been an important element and communities have used a variety of methods to ensure that residents are aware of programs as well as health services. Social media has played an important role in many communities, but with a significant portion of residents in rural counties not serviced by high speed internet, that approach has not reached all residents.
- Accessible and affordable internet was a theme across the region. In some communities, school buses were deployed to help residents connect to internet, especially to assist students. However, with transportation also being an issue for some residents, reaching an internet hot spot was not always possible.
- With many businesses shut down for an extended period of time due to the stay-at-home order issued by Governor McMaster, there is great concern about how quickly small businesses can recover. Many communities have worked with business service agencies to help ensure their business owners are able to connect to government support programs developed to reduce the impacts on local businesses. In addition, many local business organizations have been providing marketing and promotional support for local businesses.
- One interesting commonality among the communities is that while COVID-19 has spotlighted issues including internet accessibility and fragility of small businesses in rural communities, there are also a number of issues that were of concern prior to COVID-19 that remain priorities across the Upstate.
- Mobility and lack of transportation access has become a regional priority in recent years, especially for many residents of rural communities who are unable to improve their personal economic mobility due to lack of access to transportation. Skill training also remains an issue in many Upstate counties as the technical colleges, Workforce Boards and others continue to provide a critical service to help people gain skills needed for higher paying jobs.
During each session, members of the Ten at the Top team asked a specific set of questions around the topics of general collaboration, economic development & small businesses, infrastructure & mobility and social services, public health and education. Below are composite summaries of the general feedback heard across the region. You can also read each of the county specific summaries through this link.
For all counties except for Cherokee, participants were provided with a series of poll questions and asked to rank on a scale of 1–10 (I being not at all met and 10 being totally met) their impression on the response for each category.
|Number of Responses||7||2||10||15||8||12||9|
|When it comes to social services and health care in your county, how do you feel your community’s personal well-being needs have been met?||Avg.||8||8||7||8||8||7|
|Within your county, how do you feel the needs of your manufacturers and other larger employers have been met?||Avg.||7||7||8||8||9||8||7|
|Within your county, how do you feel the needs of your restaurants and retail stores have been met?||Avg.||6||6||6||7||6||6|
|Within your county, how do you feel the needs of your local (non-chain or franchise) small businesses and entrepreneurs have been met?||Avg.||6||6||6||6||7||6||5|
|Within your county, how do you feel the needs of your schools, colleges, and universities have been met?||Avg.||6||7||7||8||8||7|
|Within your county, how do you feel the needs of your local and county governments have been met?||Avg.||7||6||7||8||8||7|
Questions asked by Dean Hybl, Executive Director
What role has collaboration played in communities across the Upstate as they respond to COVID-19?
Whether it be previously developed collaborative partnerships or ones created specifically to collectively respond to COVID-19, collaboration has clearly been critical in all communities during the pandemic. Collaboration has been used by different communities to share information, identify resources and implement needed services. The result has been a general feeling in most Upstate counties that the response to COVID-19 has been a team effort with everyone playing their own specific role in the effort.
Are there any examples of communities being pro-active in their approaches?
Prior to COVID-19, Pickens County had passed a state of emergency ordinance that called for city agencies to automatically coordinate with each other during a state of emergency. As a result, when a number of agencies had limited day-to-day work due to COVID-19, those employees were repurposed to help the community in various ways, including distributing meals on wheels, collecting food and assisting the United Way.
Economic Development & Small Business
Questions asked by Erin Ouzts, Entrepreneur Ecosystem Coordinator
In general, what was the state of small businesses & entrepreneurs in the Upstate prior to COVID-19 and how does that set things up for recovery? Generally growing, expanding and starting to thrive. Many new businesses getting started.
What were some of the major impacts seen by small businesses during COVID-19? Closings and shifting to curb-side delivery. Scrambling to understand and get PPP and EIDL loans. How to get funding for under-the-table workers and non-legally-registered organizations. Exposure of their lack of understanding of internet usage to get information and post updated information. Challenges that came with not knowing where or how to look for and find information. Lack of clean/updated financial documents led to extra work by banks and accountants. Having fast enough internet at home, or even access at all, hampered attempts to do online activities.
Please share any unique programs or support efforts that were undertaken across the region. $75k spent on advertising for “shop local”; technology audit; community-based loan funds popping up everywhere. Sandwich board signs for downtown businesses.
What established resources were most helpful to small businesses & entrepreneurs during the crisis? SBDC, Chambers, county and city economic development organizations
What was the general experience and challenges around utilizing EIDL & PPP programs? Scrambling to understand PPP and EIDL loans. Not having a big-bank relationship. How to get funding for under-the-table workers and non-legally-registered organizations. Challenges that came with not knowing where or how to look for and find information. Lack of clean/updated financial documents led to extra work by banks and accountants. Banks trying to process applications and answer questions while the rules were still being decided.
Is there a general lesson that COVID-19 has taught local communities and/or small business owners? Have the business of our business in order (legal, financial, accounting); be nimble and able to shift resources to maximize opportunity for revenue quickly; know how to use the internet, social media, etc. to post AND find updated information.
In general, how have manufacturers and larger employers fared during COVID-19? Most have fared well. They are moving to smaller groups of employees at a time and are adjusting for social distancing. Seems that other than getting through to unemployment office, getting the unemployment insurance was something most employees pursued.
Share examples of best practice efforts by counties to support manufacturers. SBDC weekly information sessions and webinars. SBDC phone meetings and ability to set appointments online, plus loan programs, help with setting guidelines.
Please share any potential programs, collaborative efforts or other initiatives that could be implemented to support communities, businesses & entrepreneurs across the region. Community loan programs, technology training, advertising and promotion support, additional social media campaigns by city and chambers, webinars on how-to proceed through and implement the many changes.
Infrastructure & Mobility
Questions asked by Michael Hildebrand, Director, Upstate Mobility Alliance
Provide a general overview of rural mobility challenges in the Upstate. Generally speaking, the mobility challenges in our rural communities are focused in two areas: a lack of accessible public transportation options and minimal infrastructure such as sidewalks and bike lanes. These challenges limit access to work, medical, and other community resources.
What are some of the specific challenges related to mobility? Several communities currently do not have access to any public transportation system. In other communities that have a public transportation system, often these systems do not serve the entire county which leaves areas without any transit option. An additional challenge is the lack of transportation to educational opportunities. Finally, the lack of safe walking and biking paths limits access to employment opportunities.
As employees return to work, what have been some of the challenges to overcome? Communities are finding that financial and educational literacy is a challenge to returning to work. Additionally, since most information about job postings and work opportunities are online, the ability to communicate with potential workers has been an issue in communities that lack strong internet availability. Finally, finding transportation options to get to work has been a challenge.
What has been the experience around broad band across the Upstate? The lack of widely available broadband service is a major issue for most rural communities. Where broadband is available, the cost is a barrier for individual users.
Please share any potential regional efforts that could help support infrastructure and mobility challenges in rural areas across the Upstate. Efforts that provide education on the basics of computer and internet use would be helpful, especially as it relates to looking for job opportunities. Also help in identifying potential transportation solutions would be beneficial.
Social Services, Education, Health
Questions asked by Justine Allen, Events & Program Coordinator
Overall, what role did school districts play in supporting social service needs of students during COVID-19?
School districts provided meals, either by bus at schools and other drop off points, or by direct delivery to homes. School districts provided wi-fi hot spots for downloading of e-learning materials at schools and other central locations.
Schools made guidance counselors available, but not being able to spend time in person with students is expected to take a toll, as this is how concerns generally arise to be addressed.
Union Reads (Union High School program) is partnering with SCC on virtual parent literacy classes, including financial literacy.
What were some of the challenges faced by colleges/universities?
Some students were unable to travel to their home state or country when the schools closed, so they were accommodated with housing and meals, either on campus or with families.
There are concerns about students being part of the local workforce and consumer economy. Many students are unable to work due to closures and unable to access stimulus funds because they are still dependents.
Lander University’s Foundation started a crisis fund. Students apply for a max of $300 in vouchers for rent, utilities, transportation, gas. They will continue to raise money for the fund.
Financial Aid offices working with students who are struggling.
Were there any best practice examples of communities coming together to support community needs?
- Covid for All in Cherokee started by several organizations working together in Cherokee.
- United Way partnered with YMCA in Greenwood to expand food program.
- Lakelands YMCA working with Laurens District 55 on a summer reading program and other initiatives tbd.
- SC Empowerment distributes food boxes in Laurens neighborhoods.
- Salvation Army in Pickens County assisting with funding, childcare, working with United Way.
- Meals to You (Baylor program) extended outreach to SC during school year.
What are some of the ongoing challenges, especially related to keeping people in their homes amid increased unemployment?
Initially food shortages were an issue. Now more assistance is being requested with mortgages, rent, and utility payments. Will funds be available moving forward?
Did communities provide specific programs to support seniors?
Through United Way and other organizations, counties provided some sort of meal assistance through access points and home delivery. Computer literacy is an issue so resources available have not always been accessed. Many food vouchers for fresh fruit and vegetables have not been requested so the assumption is that people do not know about them or are afraid to go out to pick them up. Some agencies put vouchers online for safely, but this posed a challenge because some seniors do not use or know how to use technology to find or access the vouchers.
How to reach seniors without using smartphones and internet?
Have any groups fallen through the cracks?
The only group identified was students of higher education.
What are some of the challenges, potential collaborative opportunities moving forward?
|Challenge||Potential Collaborative Opportunity|
|Dissemination of information||Counties get together to develop best practices for information distribution, including in times of disaster (no power)|
|Lack of internet access and affordability||Counties get together to develop plan, lobby state/fed, and implement universal installation and affordability of broadband|
|Seniors and technology||Scale up training for seniors—e.g.,coordinate getting appropriate people in the counties together and train their people so their people can train seniors.|
Just Call Bill mentioned as a resource
Andrea Smith at Senior Action also mentioned her staff doing lots of over the phone assistance.
|Transportation – getting to jobs, getting to schools to get meals and wi-fi, seniors getting to food access points||Mobility Alliance|
Next Steps & Future Opportunities
In general, the listening tour input reinforced that a number of the areas in which Ten at the Top has been focusing collaborative efforts including mobility & transportation, entrepreneur support and senior needs remain relevant during the current crisis.
Access to internet & broadband technology was also a major focus and while Ten at the Top will certainly support the continued expansion of availability across the region, that issue seems to have been identified as a state-wide issue that the state legislature will be focusing to address.
Below are some of the specific follow-up actions that TATT will be taking in the coming weeks to support some of the issues identified during the listening tour:
- Rural Mobility Listening Session: The Upstate Mobility Alliance’s Moving People Task Force will be holding a special virtual listening session on July 13th with representatives from rural communities to better learn about specific mobility & transportation challenges in the non-urban areas within the Upstate. Following this session, the committee will develop a strategy for how to move forward in supporting greater access to transportation in the rural areas within the Upstate.
- Entrepreneur & Small Business Webinar Series: To help address some of the specific challenges identified by entrepreneurs & small businesses, TATT’s Upstate Entrepreneur Ecosystem group will be holding a series of webinars with subject experts that will be available for viewing by small business owners & entrepreneurs. In addition, the group will continue to focus on “connecting the disconnected” with resources to help start and grow businesses in the Upstate.
- Senior Needs Workshops: Due to COVID-19, TATT has been unable to hold in-person Senior Needs Workshops through the first half of 2020. Beginning in August, we intend to hold virtual workshops to continue to connect senior service providers and to especially understand how to support their needs during the current pandemic.
In addition to these three specific efforts, TATT will continue to look for opportunities to support communities across the Upstate in other areas that are impacted by the pandemic and corresponding economic crisis.