New economic-development director

Mary Coulombe, Craig Burns and Lu Cousins listen as Natalie Monkou, Vienna's economic-development director, outlines her recent efforts Jan. 15, 2020, during a community meeting at Caffè Amouri. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)

Vienna businesses have been hurt during the ongoing public-health crisis, according to a newly released town survey, but the town’s economic-development director and a local business-advocacy group said they’re working hard to reverse the situation.

The Vienna Economic Development Office conducted the survey between April 22 and May 15, in conjunction with the Town/Business Liaison Committee and the Vienna Business Association.

The survey inquired about how many employees the companies had, the kind of assistance they sought, whether they had received disaster-relief funding, which preventive measures they had taken during the crisis and any creative strategies they had used to weather the pandemic.

Fifty-nine percent of respondents were concerned about the ongoing public-health crisis and 22 percent worried whether their companies would remain viable within the next one to three months. Survey takers reported that their companies had experienced 71-percent revenue losses during the survey window.

Forty-nine percent of survey respondents, who either owned the businesses or belonged to their executive staffs, had worked without salaries during the first two months of the crisis, said Natalie Monkou, the town’s economic-development director. Fifty-eight percent of respondents reported having to reduce their employees’ hours or lay off staff members and contract workers.

Many survey takers asked for mortgage or rent relief, while others noted how hard it was to maintain their client base, especially if those customers now could not pay for their services.

One respondent, who has been in business for more than 10 years, was struggling because their company’s services required physical contact with the community.

“They have been spending money on [personal protective equipment] when they don’t have a steady income stream, and the entire situation has been devastating for them and their family,” Monkou said.

Seventy-five percent of respondents said they would benefit from educational programming in areas such as marketing, branding, obtaining grants and finding other funding options.

The majority of businesses that responded to the survey were adhering to social-distancing guidelines.

Three-quarters of the 94 businesses that responded to the survey had 10 or fewer employees. Eighty percent of responses came from women-owned businesses, 27 percent from companies owned by minorities and 22 percent from home-based businesses.

Respondents came from a wide swath of the local commercial sector.

“I was happy about the fact that it wasn’t just food-and-beverage [businesses], it was also health and medical, finance, education, consulting and construction,” Monkou said. “I was happy to see there was a broad spectrum that we could get information from.”

Vienna officials had been busy helping businesses prepare for the Phase 1 reopening in Northern Virginia, which began the weekend of May 30 and 31. Town officials made it easier for businesses to apply for permits allowing outdoor dining and other commercial activities, she said.

In the lead-up to that weekend, Town Manager Mercury Payton allowed local businesses to submit authorization forms affirming that the affected property owners knew about their outdoor commercial-activity plans, listed where those would occur and affirmed the companies would be adhering to health and fire-safety regulations, she said.

The Vienna Town Council on June 1 was slated to consider a 60-day emergency ordinance to allow outdoor business operations under certain conditions.

The town will conduct a follow-up survey this summer. Monkou expects some of the results to differ from the initial survey’s because many factors and programs still were in flux when the town conducted it. For example, many town businesses had applied for, but not yet received, federal money at the time of the original survey.

Since then, Fairfax County has instituted a micro-loan program from which Monkou estimated 10 to 13 Vienna businesses had benefited. The Board of Supervisors also established a small-business grant program using $25 million in funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“I understand that grants are a very big part of accessing capital in a way that’s less cumbersome than a loan,” she said. “We’re definitely working to help make that happen.”

Many town businesses have adopted creative strategies to survive the crisis, but still are having trouble paying rent, she said. Town officials will give companies educational materials on how to recover from the crisis and market for new business. The town also will try to acquire personal protective equipment, such as face masks, to help those companies.

Peggy James, executive director of the Vienna Business Association, said she was happy Monkou had arranged for the survey and hoped that the economic-development director could resume her standard duties again soon.

Some Vienna companies, such as restaurants offering take-out food, have been able to weather the storm reasonably well, but many new businesses that still are paying down their start-up costs are struggling mightily, James said.

Businesses trying to recover from the pandemic will need to be flexible and get marketing help, James said.

“A lot of small businesses are good at what they do, but they aren’t marketing experts,” she said.

In a business world altered by COVID-19, “they have to market their safety precautions to their customers and offer products in multiple ways,” James said.

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