Survey reveals mix of hope and worry among businesses

Ridgefield’s ECDC (Economic & Community Development Commission) created a 40-question online survey for Ridgefield business owners.

Ridgefield’s ECDC (Economic & Community Development Commission) created a 40-question online survey for Ridgefield business owners.

Contributed photo

Optimism coupled with concern.

That is one of the primary themes arising from the responses to an online survey sent to the roughly 600 registered businesses in Ridgefield.

“There’s good news and there’s bad news,” said Geoffrey Morris, the chairman of Ridgefield’s ECDC (Economic & Community Development Commission), referring to the results of the commission’s 40-question survey. “Business owners are positive about the future, but they are also worried about what could happen.”

Morris said that 145 businesses and non-profit organizations responded to the survey, which was designed to give the town feedback on how much the coronavirus has impacted Ridgefield’s business community.

“The Town now has a clear picture of how Ridgefield businesses and nonprofits are faring in the COVID era,” wrote Morris in a press release issued Wednesday morning. “We can now begin pursuing resources to help Ridgefield’s businesses recover.”

The responses to questions in five categories — Operations and Supply Chain, Workforce, Finance, Business Resources, and Future — indicated a mix of encouragement and fear: 60% of those responding said they do not forecast workforce reductions in the next six months, but 76% have seen a decrease in revenue since COVID-19 began; 62% said they could survive another long-term closure (some with financial assistance), but 33% said they have four weeks or fewer of operating cash available.

As expected, the two-month, state-mandated closure for non-essential businesses — coupled with restrictions on many of those which were allowed to stay open — led to significant revenue losses. Many businesses were allowed to reopen May 20, but with restrictions that make a return to pre-coronavirus revenue unlikely.

Sixty-two percent of those responding said they have kept employee staffing flat since mid-March, with 33% saying they reduced staffing.

“Some employers report a dip in their workforce, but a large majority have held staffing levels flat and forecast little-if-any reduction in force through the end of 2020,” wrote ECDC Commissioner Bob Knight in the press release.

With in-person service either shut down or reduced, businesses sought revenue online.

“More than half the survey respondents reported a reliance on online sales platforms to remain solvent during the pandemic. About two-thirds of this cohort launched online sales platforms as a direct result of the COVID-19 closures,” wrote Morris. “Before the pandemic, businesses reported online sales accounted for less than 10% of revenues; now that number has more than doubled and we see this as a real opportunity for medium- and long-term growth.”

Morris said that about 5% of Ridgefield’s registered businesses and nonprofits have reached out to the ECDC for assistance. And business leaders are worried about the impact of a coronavirus resurgence.

“The overwhelming majority of survey respondents forecast that they can survive another closing,” Morris said, “but a third report less than a month of cash-on-hand to cover operating expenses like payroll and rent.”

Based on the survey responses, a town task force — the COVID Ridgefield Recovery Committee (a joint effort of the ECDC and the Board of Selectmen) — will work with businesses seeking financial help.

“We are looking to raise funds from both private individuals and from untapped grants,” said task force chair Bob Hebert, who is also a member of the Board of Selectmen.

In response to a general question about what the business community needs, the top response was help facilitating conversations between tenant and landlord.

“Some commercial property owners in Ridgefield are quietly working with tenants on temporary rent concessions, however, through the survey, ECDC has fielded a number of claims that others are unwilling to work with their tenants,” said Morris.

“It’s a complex challenge,” said Knight. “On one hand, we’re still in the midst of a public health emergency. Smaller crowds mean that some businesses—even long-term tenants—face the risk of closing permanently. On the other, some property owners are contractually-restricted by their lenders from renegotiating rents mid-stream.”

In the survey, the town did receive positive feedback on how it has handled the reopening.

“The spirit of Ridgefield has been on full display,” Knight said. “Our goal was to have the business community and residents working in partnership on a safe and successful reopening, and that’s exactly what happened. It’s great to see positive feedback. The entire community has stepped up in a big way.”