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Officials hope online listings can help businesses survive COVID-19

Nathan Baker • Updated Mar 20, 2020 at 12:04 AM

Local economic officials hope new online resources can help the region’s small businesses weather a potential economic downturn caused by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Multiple organizations and offices banded together Thursday to introduce two initiatives to gather information from businesses about changes to their schedules or services because of the virus and to get that information to the public.

The Appalachian Highlands Economic Aid Directory, or AHEAD, is a website conceived by the Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport chambers of commerce, NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership, Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association and Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership.

Through it, businesses can fill out an online form with take out options, closures and other information that could assist them until the situation improves. Once enough information is collected, the website, regionAHEAD.com, will launch a directory of listings with resources, tools and stories from affected business owners.

“We’re trying to make it clear that people can find what it is they need,” Mitch Miller, CEO of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, said. “That information, in addition to going to their customers, is going to be going to local officials, so we can impact those businesses in a positive way.”

Miller said the directory could be used later when emergency aid money is made available to small business owners.

“It’s chaotic right now, and we’re thankful to have good leaders who can come together and say, ‘let’s do this together.’”

To help until the AHEAD website is live, another group of economic officials started an initiative on Facebook to let people know which businesses are open and which have changed their services.

Jenna Moore, director of sales for the Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the Johnson City — Distance Socially, Support Locally Facebook page was posted to allow local businesses to communicate directly to customers, all in one place.

“We want to give people ways they can support small businesses without putting themselves at risk to spread this virus,” Moore said. “It’s pretty amazing what some of these businesses have been able to put together on such short notice.”

The Facebook page also has a search function, so if customers want options for pizza, they can search for “pizza,” and see what restaurants are open and whether they’re offering delivery or curbside pickup.

Dianna Cantler, NETREP’s Downtown Development Director, said many of the business owners she has spoken with in the past week have been worried about their employees and about how to keep their businesses solvent as health officials recommend social distancing.

“This absolutely breaks my heart,” she said. “So many of the businesses are small and locally owned by people who have worked so hard and have put not only their heart into their businesses, but everything they have financially, too. It’s absolutely frightening for these folks.”

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