Column: Jay Wolz: From the (Home) Business Desk: Silver linings to the coronavirus cloud (10/5/20)

Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce president Brian Gerau addresses a “socially-distanced” gathering at the chamber’s annual Partner Appreciation Luncheon on Wednesday at the Jackson Civic Center.

Jay Wolz

There’s little I can say that hasn’t already been said about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the local, state and national economies. Millions of Americans have lost jobs, thousands of businesses have either temporarily or permanently closed, and countless lives have been impacted.

But not all the news is gloom and doom.

Both the Cape Girardeau and Jackson chambers of commerce hosted events last week at which business leaders pointed toward examples of positive economic news on the local front that have developed during the coronavirus outbreak.

Partner appreciation

The Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual Partner Appreciation Luncheon on Wednesday during which organization president Brian Gerau told a room full of socially-distanced sponsors about several chamber successes in 2020.

The chamber staff and board of directors are “doing absolutely amazing things, especially during a pandemic,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic, Gerau said, has made it necessary for the chamber to “pivot” and become a resource for the business community, providing coronavirus information and materials to chamber members and others during the first six months of the outbreak.

“We wanted to make sure we were doing everything we possibly could do to make sure our members are open and stayed open, so our job was to try and get as much information out there as possible,” he said.

For instance, the chamber provided information about the federal government’s paycheck protection program and helped area businesses secure more than $6 million in PPP loans and distributed thousands of masks to area businesses.

The chamber also worked closely with businesses near the junction of U.S. 61 (East Jackson Boulevard) and Interstate 55, currently the site of a diverging diamond interchange construction project.

“I wasn’t a big fan of that because it directly affected our businesses and a new hotel,” Gerau said, “but we’re extremely happy it’s ahead of schedule.”

Chamber vice president Jen Berti told the luncheon group about several new businesses that have either opened or are close to opening in Jackson, regardless of the pandemic. Those businesses include:

* SEMO Crawfish, 3582 E. Jackson Blvd., which opened in June.

* Best Western Plus near the intersection of East Jackson Boulevard and Old Orchard Road, open since July.

* Scooter’s Coffee, 601 E. Jackson Blvd., which opened in August.

* Domino’s Pizza, 2370 E. Main St., which also opened in August.

* Machos Tacos, 515 W. Main St., which opened last month.

* Blazin’ Car Wash, currently under construction behind Century 21 on East Jackson Boulevard, with a projected opening this in early 2021.

* DB’s Barbecue, opening early next year on Highway 72 in a building under construction next to Jones & Associates.

* Fuel, a food and entertainment venue on West Main Street, opening date to be determined.

Those businesses, Berti said, will create approximately 138 jobs once they’re all open.

Looking ahead to 2021, Gerau said, the chamber plans to resume its leadership development program, which was postponed when the pandemic began. Also in 2021, Gerau said the chamber expects to identify an occupant for the Jackson Industrial Development Co.’s 50,000-square-foot spec building off South Farmington Road.

“We’re going to sell that building,” he said. “We’ve got two or three amazing prospects we’ve been working with and we’re close (to selling it).”

Growth sectors

Meanwhile, at the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce’s First Friday Coffee last week, chamber president John Mehner acknowledged the challenges the business community has faced — and continues to encounter — during the coronavirus outbreak.

“We’ve certainly all had our share of challenging news lately,” Mehner said, but added there are “a few things in the area that are going extremely well.”

The chamber president moderated a program featuring representatives of two facets of the local economy that have been thriving during the pandemic — real estate and digital technology.

Asked to sum up the area real estate market, Jessica Farrar with Soto Property Solutions said, “The short answer is, it’s crazy.” Farrar serves on the Southeast Missouri Realtors board of directors.

“We started out 2020 looking really solid. It was going to be a great year,” she said. “Then COVID hit and kind of put a pause on everything in April and May, but we are coming back and are having a very strong recovery.”

That recovery, Farrar said, is being supported by attractive interest rates.

“We’re seeing historically low interest rates,” she said. “Buyers are out there and demand is super high.”

The only down side, Farrar continued, is that inventory is low.

“We need more houses,” she said. “Demand is way higher than the supply is right now.”

As for the area’s growing technology field, several new tech companies have established roots in Cape Girardeau, according to James Stapleton, co-founder of Codefi and the Marquette Tech District.

Those companies, including winners of Codefi’s 2020 1st50K startup competition, have brought several good-paying technology jobs to Cape Girardeau.

“One of the great things about the digital economy is typically most of the employment in that industry are high-wage occupations and those are the kinds of jobs all of us want to bring more of to the area,” Stapleton said.

Codefi itself recently announced expansion of its programs and services beyond Cape Girardeau and Southeast Missouri into Western Kentucky. “And we’re about to announce a big project across southern Missouri,” Stapleton said.

The nation’s economy added an estimated 661,000 in September, according to data released Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s significantly lower than the 1.5 million jobs the nation added in August, and while the economy added more than a million jobs every month between May and August, the U.S. is still down 10.7 million jobs since before the COVID-19 pandemic started in March.

The U.S. unemployment rate in September, according to the last week’s report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dropped 0.5% last month, from 8.4% in August to 7.9% last month. That’s the highest unemployment rate ahead of a presidential election since the government started tracking the monthly rate in 1948.

According to a recent survey I read about in my email last week, Missourians working from home spend an average of 1.1 hours a week trying to resolve tech problems with their computer, printer or other office-type equipment.

The survey, conducted by Cherry Digital in Portland, Oregon, also reported that:

* One in four Missourians reported regular tech problems while working from home.

* 37% said they have regularly had to cut conference calls short because someone on the call had a poor internet connection.

* Two-thirds of home-bound workers think employers should cover home internet expenses.

* 20% admitted they have tried to use their neighbor’s Wi-Fi.

* About 25% of work-from-home employees said they had to use cellphone data when their Wi-Fi was too slow.

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