County commissioners urging EDC, island chambers to do more

Leaders of chambers of commerce on Whidbey Island have turned to cyberspace to support businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Island County officials hope they will play a greater real-world role in helping with the recovery.

Commissioners urged officials at the county Department of Emergency Management and the Island County Economic Development Council, an independent agency, to create a plan for assisting businesses and individuals, particularly in navigating state and federal programs aimed at helping the economy.

“This to me is the rubber hits the road moment,” Commissioner Jill Johnson said, saying that she was disappointed that the EDC hadn’t taken the initiative in creating a plan.

The commissioners stressed that they wanted the EDC and its partners to move beyond just gathering and pushing out information to actively helping businesses to navigate the assistance options, reaching out to businesses and advocating for them. The EDC has detailed information about government assistance on its website.

The commissioners pointed out that several of the chambers have paid staff as well as offices that could be leveraged in a partnership. People at the chambers, for example, could be trained to cover a hotline to help businesses figure out which government program would be best and how to fill out paperwork.

EDC Executive Director Sharon Sappington said a committee was formed to review 300 applications received for state grants aimed at helping business with one to 10 employees. The EDC has $100,000 to give out, with $10,000 being the maximum grant.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said the grants will help, but many more businesses are still struggling.

In the end, commissioners asked their staff members to create a plan, and they also urged Sappington to work with chambers of commerce to assist the public in a more immediate timeframe.

So far, the chambers have focused on helping retail businesses and restaurants online during the pandemic.

Langley Chamber of Commerce Director Inge Morascini has helped develop a way to bolster the Village by the Sea’s small businesses. Launched this past week, an updated Langley Chamber website allows visitors to purchase gift certificates that have a 20 percent increase in value after 45 days and to shop directly through an online marketplace known as the Virtual Village.

The new section of the website, called “Altogether Langley,” aims to promote virtual tourism for the town.

“At the moment, it’s about being flexible and imaginative,” Morascini said. “That’s what business is about today.”

Morascini received permission from the city attorney to reallocate tourism funds from the whale-watching season to the Virtual Village, the online marketplace section of Altogether Langley. As of last Thursday afternoon, 35 Langley businesses signed up for the gift certificate program, and 25 for the Virtual Village.

Rather than focusing on a virtual marketplace on the Clinton Chamber of Commerce website, President Stephanie Cook said she has been considering long-term solutions, with a focus on helping business owners develop their own websites.

The chamber website does have links to purchase gift certificates and a new spot to make a donation to business owners. There are varying ranges in amounts donors can give, from $25 to $250.

Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Miranda Hoppock said in an email that the chamber has made changes to its website as well, with links to COVID resources, business updates and restaurant information.

A new Facebook page was created specifically to keep information updated about North Whidbey restaurants and their operations. Hoppock added that the Oak Harbor chamber is encouraging the community to support the small businesses by purchasing gift certificates, ordering online and utilizing curbside pick-up services.

The chamber is planning to team up with the city to develop support for the small businesses, Hoppock said.

Coupeville Chamber of Commerce didn’t respond to requests for information.

Reporter Kira Erickson contributed to the story.