By Lee Reinsch
DE PERE – The year 2020 may be in the rearview mirror, but objects are still larger than they appear.
At the annual State of De Pere program last month city leaders painted a positive portrait of the community’s road to pandemic recovery, but they didn’t try to wallpaper over the potholes from 2020.
Business closures and pandemic preparedness measures put a damper on much of De Pere’s business community, but as a whole, the city is emerging, said De Pere Mayor James Boyd.
“Our community’s health – physically, emotionally, mentally and economically – has been tested like never before,” Boyd said. “But during this challenging time, despite our many shared difficulties, I have seen the fierce resolve and commitment of many in our community to help the City of De Pere endure and prosper.”
Last March, the city launched the pandemic response small business loan program.
The city reallocated $500,000 of the city’s former revolving loan fund to the program, which provides up to $10,000 in zero-percent interest loans for eligible small businesses, which have suffered significant financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Businesses with fewer than 20 employees can receive a $5,000 zero-percent interest loan, and qualifying businesses with 20 or more employees can receive a $10,000 zero-percent interest loan, Boyd said.
The program is still open, and he encouraged businesses in need of help to apply.
The council also reallocated $300,000 to help downtown businesses in the retail, entertainment and restaurant segments.
Boyd highlighted a few accomplishments of the past year:
• The playground at Patriot Park opened last summer.
• Renovations of James Street Plaza, featuring wind and water features, were finished and will open this year.
• The city issued $115 million in commercial and industrial building permits and awarded $70,000 in facade grants.
Boyd also he cited some things to look forward to this year:
• In 2021, docks at some water areas will be extended due to high water, and nets will be replaced at several tennis and pickleball courts.
• Summer Beer Garden music events will return this summer, having been successful the first year, in 2019.
• The parks department will host a virtual 5k event in spring (more details to come on the city website).
• UnitedHealth Group is on the verge of opening its 170,000-square-foot, $30 million office building in West Business Park.
• Infinity Machine kicked off an expansion of its manufacturing facility that doubled its size.
• Tailwaggers Doggy Daycare, which will offer indoor and outdoor play areas and an indoor swimming pool, broke ground on a new facility in West Business Park.
A word from the chamber
However, last year wasn’t easy, and surveys bore that out.
Amber Thiel, executive director of the De Pere Area Chamber, shared some of the findings from last year’s Business Walk, a survey program where chamber members visit area businesses with questionnaires to assess the local business climate.
Thiel said industry appeared to suffer the most dramatic changes, and areas including entertainment, food service, retail and hospitality sectors saw shutdowns and business declines.
The surveys found that 62 percent of businesses instituted some type of change in operation, and 81 percent of that number said some of those changes will remain in place after the pandemic has ended.
Most businesses accepted some form of state, federal or local COVID-19 relief funds, she said.
The reasons those that didn’t accept the aid gave included not wanting to take on more debt, not qualifying for the assistance, or not needing it.
However, chamber members are staying loyal to the organization, Thiel said.
“Despite all of the challenges, we have maintained 99 percent of our overall (chamber) membership through 2020,” she said.
Definitely De Pere
Definitely De Pere surveyed its members, too.
Executive Director Tina Quigley said her group found:
• 59 percent of small businesses stated they risked closing permanently without financial help if the pandemic lasted beyond five months,
• Of that 59 percent, 15 percent put that timeline at just a month or two.
• 78 percent of those surveyed reported drops in revenue of more than 50 percent.
• 42 percent were concerned about paying the current month’s rent. Nearly all cut hours, furloughed or laid employees off.
• Only 30 percent of businesses described their 2020 revenues in positive terms.
The business community came together, however, Quigley said.
“Through private contributions and a match by the City of De Pere, $57,500 in cash grants were awarded to 49 small businesses; $47,000 was generated in gift card sales at downtown retail shops and restaurants, and $9,200 was raised from the #DEPERESTRONG T-shirt campaign,” she said.
To make it easier for businesses to locate help, Definitely De Pere added a resource page that connects businesses to local, state and national funding modes, including public and private grants, pandemic response loans and industry-specific assistance programs.
Despite the year’s roadblocks, several new businesses opened in the downtown district, including Native Roots Hemp, Strada Pizzeria, Smithmaker Artisan Co., Verde, Market Street Boutique and Everything Zen.
“I remain optimistic that we have what it takes to keep downtown De Pere strong,” Quigley said. “It will be a year of rebuilding and reimagining. Small businesses are the heart of our community, and there has never been a more important and meaningful time to come together to help them and do what we can to make sure that they survive.”
St. Norbert College
St. Norbert College President Brian Bruess shared some of the shifts the school made to meet pandemic safety protocols without alienating students.
The school offered classes in hybrid/flex mode, with most held in-person and on campus.
With conferencing cancelled, it was able to dedicate all available space to classrooms and have 300 socially-distanced sections.
SNC did surveillance testing on athletes.
After a post-Labor Day surge, adherence goals were recommitted, with good results as far as decreasing the case numbers.
In October, the school put curfews into place.
The college worked in tandem with local health directors to ensure policies were in sync.
“It was a collective community campus effort,” Bruess said. “Not one case was traced back to our classrooms.”
Despite all of the extraneous distractions, St. Norbert College managed to develop three new majors: integrated studies, data analytics and actuarial science.
“We were so proud of our students,” Bruess said. “They wanted to be here and worked with each other to keep cases low.”
Bruess said the year ended with 10 percent lower revenue due to the cancelation of conferences and additional expenses related to COVID-19.
But, 2021 fall enrollment is looking good, almost as good as the school’s best year, which was 2018.