How a blend of UDub students from the Evans School of Public Affairs, and a couple of old colleagues, are helping local businesses in Bellevue, WA.

By Jennifer Schemke

Randomly point to a spot on the globe, or view planet earth from outer space, moving closer through atmosphere and clouds, narrowing to continent, country, city, to any latitude and longitude, in Anywhere, USA., and you’ll find hundreds of small businesses adversely affected by the Covid-19 lockdowns. Beloved Mom and Pops yanked beneath the undertow of a year unattended, old haunts we took for granted gone dim, like campfires snuffed out, entire stomping grounds pillaged by desertion and the redirected traffic of everyday routine. Now that the vaccines have descended, and the Tiers are changing colors, and we slowly emerge to assess the rubble, is there enough oxygen to reignite the embers, to resuscitate the small businesses that may still sputter with life? Is there enough confidence among consumers to repopulate the once bustling marketplaces, to save the small businesses that give our various corners of the world their unique flavor, and many of the residents of those corners, their livelihoods? In North America, King County, Washington, just East of Seattle, to be exact, two student research teams from the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs have joined with the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce to work on determining just that.

The research effort is headed by Bellevue Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Joe Fain and his former colleague and local business owner (and lover-of-doing-good), Will Niccolls, who happens to have earned his own MA degree from the Evans School of Public Affairs. The two (they met while working as legislative aides at King County many years ago) are teaming up again, this time with current Evans School students completing their capstone projects (multi-faceted projects, to culminate a student’s academic experience, for those outside of academia). Their multi-faceted task in this case is to research and assess the post-lockdown damage to local businesses, particularly minority and women-owned businesses, in order to advise municipal governments on what can be done to reopen, quickly and safely. Divided into Team A (“Covid-19 Impacts on Minority and Women-Owned Businesses in Bellevue”) and Team B (“Return to Work: Workforce Impacts and Barriers to Reopening.”), the committee is focusing on the areas of Bellevue, Redmond, and Kirkland, looking at the urban core, and how the elimination of foot traffic has had a sprawling economic effect, from the cup of coffee in the morning, to the hopping lunch crowd, to the after work cocktails-and-unwind set. Add to that the myriad services (often minority owned) offered at nail and hair salons, barber shops, gyms, and services like dry cleaning, key-cutting, printing, mail and packing, and shoe-repair, all popular before and after work, and the fiscal impacts are almost too vast to imagine. We know large tech employers, like Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook, all with footprints in the Seattle, have been thriving. But, while the tech industry has enjoyed a strong year of growth and success, local businesses have suffered.

This is where the committee is stepping in to help. Joe Fain felt Niccolls would be a good fit to lend his enthusiasm and expertise to the effort. Will is VP and co-founder, with his wife Kyleen (a Hispanic woman, as it were), of local businesses True North Carpet Cleaning, and the iconic environmentally conscious port-o-toilet rental company Green Latrine (an event-centric business particularly hit by Covid-19 restrictions). Will also works as Referee Program Director for Washington Youth Soccer, overseeing 4,000 referees, and in 2009 he and Kyleen co-founded “Sports in Schools”, which works to ensure that all students have the opportunity to participate in school sports. From its initial inception, providing athletic socks for kids who didn’t have them, the non-profit has grown to encompass leadership training for girls, tennis leagues, and much more. Father to a daughter and a son, Will, like so many of us, has multiple interests in the economy re-opening safely, and thriving again.

The two research teams are currently conducting interviews with business and property owners, landlords, and commercial real estate agents about the ways they’ve been impacted, their forecasts for growth in the future, and what their plans are to get things safely rolling again. The research teams will work from their collected findings to make recommendations for recovery which will then be presented to municipalities and government leaders, locally and, possibly even nationwide.

As we all surmise the ruins, from within our own communities, or from a macro bird’s eye view, it’s comforting to know there are boots on the ground, gently trodding the landscape of our autonomous local livelihoods to see them rise with the sun once again, one business at a time.

Jennifer Schemke is a writer, specializing in blogs and content for small businesses. She’s also a stand-up comic, who looks forward to finding something, anything, funny again. In the meantime, she’s laughing at her 5 year old niece’s original jokes, all of which end with the punchline, “banana.”

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