Throughout the pandemic, local economic developers heard from business leaders that it was critical locally owned, small businesses not only survive, but thrive.
In good and bad times, it is more important than ever to support small, local businesses whenever you can, said Marjette Upshur, director of economic development & tourism for Lynchburg.
“These are the people and the experiences that not only contribute to our economy but they make Lynchburg unique, make our neighborhoods stronger and support a quality of life that makes people want to live and invest here,” she said.
Lynchburg is an economically resilient place, built on the diversity of its business community, from manufacturing to health care to higher education, she said. During the pandemic, no manufacturers closed and many took the time to innovate, improve and expand.
“We worked closely with the health department, the city of Lynchburg and our business community to schedule vaccinations to keep businesses open, keep our citizens working and keep our community as healthy as possible,” she said.
Moving forward, the city must be mindful that the health and resilience of the local economy is a direct result of the diversity of its employment base and remain focused to keep — and grow — the companies that have chosen to make Lynchburg home.
Upshur said she doesn’t think that Lynchburg has seen the end of changes to its local economy.
During the pandemic, customers, employees and businesses changed their behavior — adopting new habits from curbside pickup to remote work.
“Some of these will last as long as they need to and others may change the way people work in the long term,” she said. “You can’t take your eye off the ball because change is inevitable. But we also know that Lynchburg is well positioned — as a smaller, vibrant and affordable city with a young, growing population — to thrive.”
Darin Mellott, director of capital markets research at CBRE, a commercial real estate services and investment firm, said the region’s gross domestic product is likely to be fully recovered this year, happening in the third or fourth quarter.
“I think one of the interesting things if you look at the region, is historically it’s underperformed the country in the last few years, and it’s grown, and we expect growth to be better on the backside of the pandemic,” he said earlier this month.
He expects growth to be even better next year through about 2025 than it was before the pandemic.
“But it’s still going to actually lag the nation,” he said. “So what we see is this kind of rising tide. The national economy is doing really well and is extremely dynamic, and Lynchburg economy is growing, and it’s dynamic; it’s just not quite as dynamic as the national economy.”
He said there are some things that can be done to speed that process up such as attracting talent to the region.
“So if you look at the age distribution of your region, the median age is older than the country’s but then you have this like, big blip of Liberty University students, so if you can retain more of those people in the local region, that’s good. That’s going to go a long way to making things more dynamic.”
Talent begets talent, he said, so as those people start businesses, they hire someone who went to another university, who may end up here.
“That in-migration can play a really key role in helping drive the dynamism in the regional economy,” he said.
Megan Lucas, CEO of the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, said automation was in the workforce pipeline prior to the pandemic and the speed of change increased significantly since pandemic.
“Companies are moving from survival mode to figuring out how to operate as the pandemic moves on,” she said. “The deployment of robots and automation to the virus has been rapid.”
Lucas said organizations are reviewing bonus structures and benefits packages to ensure they are the most competitive to retain and recruit their workforce. They also are talking internally with their current teams to find innovative ways to recruit and retain.
As far as chain supply issues, it’s happening in all business sectors, she said.
“We have talked to businesses that are unable to get everything from packing supplies to machinery,” she said. “It’s really a ripple effect, if the raw materials do not arrive to create the components that go in equipment, products cannot be made.”
In 2020, many things just shut down, employees were out sick, or companies were closed for periods of time, so when everything came back online at once, the shortages began and businesses still are playing catch up.
“This affects everything from the food we eat to the goods we buy,” Lucas said. “Logistics workers such as warehousing, and truck drivers are no exception to the shortage — consumers were receiving an influx of cash so buying increased but people to receive the goods and deliver them are a challenge — thus some of the challenges we’ve seen with the ports — when warehouses are full and the port is full the only thing to do is have the ships wait.”
Of course, customers are frustrated with delays, she said, but many also understand the reasoning and that it is out of the control of the business for the most part.
“We are still experiencing these effects today as we’ve tried to play catch up. Changing suppliers won’t necessarily help because if the demand is raw materials or components, for example computer chips, there is no one else to buy from because all producers are short on supply,” she said. “We are starting to see signs of supply shortages easing up depending on the sectors, but we will still be dealing with these challenges for some time.”
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