With the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic in March 2020, the mission and work plan of the OED business development team went through an extreme axis.
The plague and the closure of public health resulting from almost all small businesses throughout most of 2020 and 2021 have created a dilemma that has changed the way San Jose treats small business owners, especially those in the hospitality and retail sectors. Within a few weeks of booking the shelter in California, the OED’s hotline moved from an audience of perhaps 500 large global companies to the 60,000 existing San Jose business owners and their economic survival.
Until March 17, 2020, the mission of the OED was to enable companies that create jobs to locate or expand in San Jose. Our goal was to help reduce the ongoing imbalance in the city between the number of jobs and the number of residents employed. For decades, San Jose has been the Silicon Valley bedroom, with more people here during the night than during the day. This makes San Jose unique among the 20 largest cities in America – and puts the city in a serious economic disadvantage. In order to support our residential areas – which make up more than 85% of our usable areas and are expensive in terms of services – we need much more large employers and the income they contribute.
Although we created a new website for business information related to COVID, and started multilingual social media, email information and a series of online business support seminars, we found that new communication tactics were needed to overcome two major barriers – language and digital involvement. Most of us are not proficient in English, and may not be active email users,
Websites and other technological communication channels. To meet this need, until retail businesses were able to reopen, OED launched the BIzWalk series.
Starting in May 2021 at the La Placita Shopping Center on Story Road, we have put together small teams of multilingual OED staff, moving from door to door in the city’s retail areas. Below is a list of the 17 neighborhoods we visited by March 30, 2022. Each walk involves 15-20 businesses, with some calls lasting up to an hour. Each walk lasts about two hours, and we split into two to three smaller teams, working across the street or covering different parts of a shopping center. By keeping in touch via text and cell phone, we can deploy a Spanish or Vietnamese speaker to a specific business if needed.
We gather information from the businesses they have visited on each trip, to capture a sense of relative recovery in the area, to document insights into the significance of federal and state loan / grant programs and to understand the challenges facing each area. It should be noted, however, that our records of these proceedings are far from projected, and are anecdotal.
We were surprised by the resilience of these businesses and the general sense of protected optimism for the future that the owners shared.
Certain major challenges to our retail businesses have emerged, including issues of crime and homelessness. For some areas, dealing with homeless issues is a significant incentive for customers. For example, retailers The Alameda, Alum Rock and East Santa Clara are desperate for the problem. We have marked these concerns with the municipal homeless services and the police department.
We have found many cases of businesses being taken advantage of by a PPP or SBA loan, and others who have found the application process discouraging, or have applied successfully but have already run out of funds.
In groups of four to seven for each region, members of the OEDCA team that participated in the BizWalk effort are:
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