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Businesses, Council differ on how to use COVID aid
downtown shopping
Those shopping, dining or entering any other indoor venue in Stanislaus County are no longer required to wear a face covering (Journal file photo).

As the Turlock City Council decides how to spend millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funding, local business owners feeling the brunt of the pandemic believe they should receive more direct aid. 

Turlock Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Gina Blom told the Council on Tuesday that businesses have struggled, especially in recent weeks as extra unemployment payments were cut off in September. This has resulted in a loss of business for some, Blom stated, and others have additionally been hit hard by delays in the supply chain. 

“The Turlock Chamber has grave concern for our small business people here in Turlock. Some people in business for 40 years are struggling monetarily. Their livelihoods are at stake,” Blom said during public comment at Tuesday’s meeting. “...They need our help.

“We are imploring all of you to please help our small businesses survive, as they are the heartbeat of our beautiful city.”

The City of Turlock is set to receive about $16 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, the total of which will be paid out within the next 12 months. During their meeting this week, the Council members agreed some funding should be used to help out businesses — but had differing opinions on how it ought to be done. 

Council members Nicole Larson and Andrew Nosrati agreed that they interpreted Blom’s comments as a plea to help businesses monetarily. Mayor Amy Bublak, Vice Mayor Pam Franco and Councilmember Rebecka Monez said they would like to see money be used to hire a City-funded business consultant who can “coach” businesses on how to operate in today’s day and age by using technology- and social media-based marketing techniques. 

Bublak said that two years ago, she went around to 100 different businesses and asked how they were marketing. About 10% said they were utilizing online tools to market their businesses, she said, and she encountered plenty of elderly business owners who didn’t want to use technology. 

She said a consultant could help every business owner, whether they’re a beginner or skilled when it comes to marketing online.

“Somewhere you can coach these people to diversify,” Bublak said. “We’re helping each business that wants help and training them to get a bottom line, as opposed to just saying here’s $500, go do better.”

Monez agreed with Bublak’s sentiment, adding that she felt businesses need to adapt in the post-COVID world of online shopping. 

“We can write checks all day long with these funds and dump it into businesses, but if we don't change the fundamentals and the foundations of our brick and mortar, when those checks run out...that is a recipe for failure, right?” Monez said. “We have to change the dynamics of it, and I think that's what we're trying to accomplish.”

So, what do Turlock business owners think?

At Main Street Antiques, owner Jennifer Jensen said sales in the store have slowed down in recent weeks, but are still better than this time last year. Something that helped the antique shop get through last year’s slow economy were the RAD cards, which utilized previous federal COVID-19 relief funds to “double” the community’s money via a digital gift card. 

Jensen thinks that monetary help would be of greater benefit to businesses than an online marketing coach. She believes the City’s higher-than-anticipated sales tax revenue over the past year reflects that relief methods used then, like the RAD cards and the City’s business grant program, were fruitful.

According to the City’s new finance director Isaac Moreno, the City exceeded even pre-pandemic estimates in sales tax throughout the last year.

“We want to draw people downtown to shop and eat in person, not encourage them to shop online,” Jensen said. “Our downtown is a destination to come and spend time, whether you buy something or not.”

Glitz Fine Clothing manager Christina Nannie said business for the downtown boutique has been fine in the past couple of months, attributing the stable sales to the return of weddings, fundraisers and other events. She also stated that the RAD card helped boost their sales during the holiday shopping months and believes monetary aid would be helpful once again.

“I definitely think small businesses deserve all the support they can get. I don't know how that should be allocated, but the RAD card last year was a huge help for us and I think it really pushed people to Christmas shop locally and get their shopping done early,” Nannie said. 

As supply chain delays affect almost every sector — even fashion — Nannie said that Glitz planned ahead by ordering all of their holiday shopping inventory months in advance. Still, the boutique continues to receive late orders meant for seasons which have already passed. 

At Rustic Roots, owner Jennifer Roots-Souza hasn’t been so lucky. Shipping costs are so high and late it’s impacting her furniture business tremendously, she said. While people in the store may make it look like business is fine, behind the scenes the supply delays have caused chaos. 

For example, Roots-Souza ordered one shipping container filled with inventory over a year ago and the cargo is still at the dock on a boat. The shipping costs have soared astronomically and she spent $45,000 for furniture and other items she has no access to. She has also had to reimburse countless customers who ordered furniture and pieces which never arrived, she said.

Roots-Souza said she believes downtown businesses should receive monetary aid because in the end, the money will be beneficial to the City through more increased sales tax revenue. Roots-Souza greatly benefited from the City’s business grant program, she said, and she’d like to see something similar implemented with this new round of federal funding.

“People are afraid to even come in right now because orders are so far out,” Roots-Souza said. “I’ve even told people if you need it by a certain date, don't order it. And I'm losing money. I'm literally hurting myself because I can’t deceive people, and that has nothing to do with how good you are at marketing yourself.”

Jensen, Nannie and Roots-Souza said they are looking forward to the annual Shop the Blocks event as a way for the community to continue supporting local businesses. Turlock residents can get their holiday shopping done early at the event, set for 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 7.