By Wanda Curtis
As the New Year unfolds, many are wondering what the future holds for Maine’s business community. President/CEO of Eastern Maine Development Corporation Lee Umphrey said the general health of Maine’s businesses during the current pandemic is uncertain. The prognosis, he said, depends upon successfully curtailing the pandemic and ensuring the continuation of substantial federal assistance which he said has had a profound effect on Maine businesses.
“Our Congressional Delegation — Senator Collins, Senator King, Representatives Golden and Pingree — have been steadfast in advocating for and supporting our businesses and communities,” said Umphrey. “The support of the federal government has been essential in helping Maine businesses get through these pandemic-driven hard times.”
According to Umphrey, all Maine businesses and nonprofit organizations have been impacted in some way. He said food and hospitality industries have been the hardest hit by the pandemic. Nicky’s Cruisin Diner, in Bangor, closed last year after more than 30 years in business. The most recent round of federal aid from the CARES Act, in December, provided much needed grant money for qualified businesses within those industries. Umphrey met previously with Governor Mills to determine how the aid should be distributed.
In regards to retail businesses who have survived, Umphrey said pivoting to an online presence to market and sell products has been a key component in their success. He said many businesses adjusted their business practices to accommodate needs created by the pandemic, including retail establishments offering curbside pick-up and restaurants offering takeout. He added that some businesses thrived by making pandemic-related products.
“One example is Puritan Medical Products of Guilford, manufacturer of swabs and single-use medical products, receiving a huge contract from the Department of Defense, in coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services,” said Umphrey. “EMDC helped create a work-force pipeline to more than double their workforce at two locations.”
Maine Heritage Weavers in Monmouth also jumped on board to produce much needed facial masks. The company is known for their iconic Bates bedspreads and blankets, woven on the premises, and shipped all over the world. With multiple looms, they were in an ideal position to weave fabric for masks.
Vice President of Sales and Marketing Bianca Cloutier said their team tried to find a way to help locally. So they began making mask prototypes which they could make completely in-house. Cloutier said that a hat company, who was a business partner, invited them to join an even larger supply chain for masks.
“One of our partners, Love Your Melon, reached out to us to form a national supply chain of manufacturers that could produce masks at scale,” said Cloutier. “We were to provide material and ship it to larger cut-and-sew factories in California, Minnesota, Kentucky and New York.”
At the peak of the pandemic, four Maine Heritage looms, typically used to weave Martha Washington’s Choice, Abigail Adams and Queen Elizabeth bedspreads, were dedicated to mask production. Their employees wove enough material to produce 5,000 to 8,000 masks daily, said Cloutier.
That production not only helped to supply the critical need for masks but also provided more work for their employees when bedspread production slowed temporarily between April and May because their suppliers in other states temporarily closed.
“We feel very lucky to be working and are seeing consistent demand and support from our customers around the country and here in Maine,” Cloutier said. “We are operating at 100 percent capacity.”
New Balance is another company that shifted gears to help produce face masks. In a June 2020 press release, Chief Operating Officer Dave Wheeler reported their employees produced more than one million masks in their Norridgewock, Maine and Lawrence, Massachusetts factories between March and June. He also reported their efforts to supply masks helped keep workers engaged while retail stores temporarily closed during the early months of the pandemic. Their factories have since shifted back to their athletic footwear production.
EMDC has supported the opening of several new businesses through two of their revolving loan funds, said Umphrey. One of those, in the Katahdin region, is Knot Plastic whose mission is finding solutions for consumers and industry by making plastics out of biodegradable and compostable materials.
“Their success is a model for others in that they had a clear vision, passion and mission,” said Umphrey. “They worked closely with EMDC and others in the community to garner support and interest for their innovative and environmentally friendly product.”
There are many resources to assist business owners during these tumultuous times, Umphrey said. The Payroll Protection Act and the CARES Act funding are two resources expected to continue during the next year. He said there are also free advisory services for Maine business owners including SCORE, Small Business Development Centers and EMDC which can provide help.
“The key is not to be afraid to ask and to keep in mind that seeking help is not an admission of failure but recognition for hard work to get through these unprecedented, turbulent times,” Umphrey said.
Deb Neuman, President/CEO of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses in the Bangor area changed practices to comply with CDC guidelines or changed how they did business to serve their customers in new and innovative ways.
“While it is difficult, if not impossible, for these businesses to replace lost revenues, many have found innovative and creative ways to continue to serve their customers,” said Neuman. “Retailers have gone beyond brick and mortar to ramp up their online sales and social media presence, gyms are offering virtual zoom training, and restaurants are offering curbside pickup. With more of us spending more time at home, businesses providing products and services to improve our homes and home offices are seeing an uptick in business, and speaking of homes, real estate sales are benefiting from people who can now live and work remotely and would prefer to live in Maine.”
A major challenge during the pandemic, said Neuman, has been knowing how to plan for the future. She said that whether it’s a restaurant needing to order food for the coming week or a concert venue booking performers for the season, not knowing how to plan has been very frustrating.
“That said, first and foremost, they want to protect their employees and customers and are grateful for all of the support they have received from the community as we continue to face and navigate through uncertainty for at least the near future,” Neuman said.
Communications Director for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development Kaye Foye said they’re very concerned about the impact of the pandemic on Maine’s small businesses. She said businesses that require a high density of people and a high touch customer experience were forced to change their business practices to adapt to the restrictions caused by the pandemic.
“Maine businesses have worked extremely hard to implement protocols to ensure that customers and employees remain safe,” Foye said.
Although the impacts of the pandemic have been significant and widespread, Foye noted there have been some bright spots. She pointed to the spike in real estate sales, adding that rural markets have experienced immigration they haven’t seen in years. She also reported increases in boat building, bike sales and the sale of building supplies. She said that building supply sales were up 18.4 percent from March to September 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019.
During the Great Depression, former President Franklin D. Roosevelt said the following: “The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”
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