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14th May 2022

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At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Tiffany Ford, North Dakota Small Business Development Center state director, knew early on that it would bring change for small businesses.

“We have some forecasting tools that were helping us to look at what was coming, but no one predicted that it was going to last this long,” Ford said.

Now, nearly two years into the pandemic, Ford says North Dakota got lucky.

“We’ve been very fortunate in our state that we’ve got a really strong business climate,” Ford said. “We’re very supportive of small business.”

But, businesses in the region did not make it this far community support alone. Behind the scenes, small businesses have had help navigating the pandemic from employees and contractors at Small Business Development Centers.

The Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Program is a federal program by the U.S. Small Business Administration that provides small businesses at any stage, pre-venture to established business, with information and guidance at no cost to the business. There are SBDCs across the country that help local businesses with things like business strategies, applying for loans and technical assistance.

Ford said with COVID-19 came an increased number of clients.

“The pandemic has honestly shone a light on our program, and it’s helped to gain some visibility for us,” Ford said.

In North Dakota and Minnesota, the increase in clients is noticeable. In North Dakota overall, there were 1,647 SBDC clients in 2019, and 3,443 by the end of 2020.

In Minnesota, Philip Knutson, regional director of the Northwest Minnesota SBDC said overall, there was a 10% increase in staff numbers across the state, compared to the 65% increase in clients. Knutson said the number of clients in Minnesota prior to 2020 was 3,525. In 2021, the SBDCs in the state had a total of 5,115 clients.

Northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota saw similar increases. In 2019, the Grand Forks region SDBC advised 179 clients. In 2020, it advised 318 and preliminary 2021 numbers show 402 clients. The Northwest Minnesota SBDC, which serves 12 counties in northwest Minnesota, also saw an uptick in clients. In 2019, it had 361 clients, and in 2020 and 2021, had 440 and 423 clients, respectively.

Ford said that while client numbers increased, SBDCs in North Dakota operated with a similar number of staff to pre-pandemic times.

“Our staff across the state are so passionate and they care so much about their small businesses and their communities, so they’ve taken it in stride and rose to the challenge,” Ford said.

Throughout the pandemic, new state and federal programs to support local businesses were rolled out, and Ford says employees at SBDCs played a large role in helping businesses take part in those programs. Federal loans and grants like the Paycheck Protection Program, Shuttered Venue Grant and Restaurant Revitalization Fund, along with state programs like the Minnesota Main Street COVID-19 Relieve Grants, promised money to small businesses, as long as they could navigate the application process.

“Those came with a lot of restrictions and rules, and some of them were really challenging to help businesses maneuver,” said Ford.

The Northwest Minnesota SBDC hires consultants to work directly with clients in the region, and Knutson said the responsibility of learning the rules of each program fell on them.

“The coordinator in our center did a lot of that, and he, along with the consultants, had to learn and relearn every day because each program was different from the last and the others out there,” said Knutson.

Ford says the work of helping small businesses apply to COVID-19 aid programs was added to the everyday work of SBDCs.

“The staff are doing tremendous work. They are tired, I’m not going to lie,” said Ford. “But we’re coming through and kind of coming to the end of a lot of American Rescue Plan programs that were implemented in order to help businesses during the pandemic.”

Now, most federal and state grants for COVID-19 assistance have ended, but SBDCs are still available for businesses in need of support.

“What’s really next for us is continuing to move forward with trying our best to assist those that are still having financial issues, and then doing the daily tasks that we’ve always done with startups and the variety of clients that we see,” said Nicole Evans, Grand Forks center director.

All SBDC services are free to business owners. In northwest Minnesota, business owners can find more information about the SBDC program and register for an initial appointment at

www.nwsbdc.org

. North Dakota business owners can find more information at

ndsbdc.org

.


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