‘No business should feel alone in 2021’: East of the River chamber sees glimmers of hope (Guest viewpoint)

As the executive director of the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce (ERC5), I’m always grateful to contribute to The Republican’s Outlook. However, let’s face facts: This 2021 article was a challenge. It’s more likely than not that mine is among a chorus articulating the impediments of 2020. The word “outlook” itself fuels feelings of hope, growth and prosperity where 2020 served quite the opposite. But, like all periods of adversity, we also saw glimmers of hope throughout 2020, and, since this is the 2021 Outlook, I choose to move forward with a message of optimism, determination and resiliency. As the proverbial rug was suddenly pulled out beneath us, the ERC5 was preparing to celebrate a windfall year. Instead, we found ourselves making quick decisions to continue our mission and support our business community.

It’s fair to wonder how a chamber of commerce can survive when a majority of its members are challenged to even stay open, let alone prosper. Our answer was to add even more value for our members.

We became fluent in new technical assistance programs. If you’d have asked this time last year what PPE, EIDL, SBA Bridge Loans and Debt Relief Loans were, most people would have had to get right back to you. Our website ERC5.com became a conduit of resources and guides on these programs.

We even implemented a virtual gift certificate center to provide a revenue bridge to small businesses. When meetings had to be canceled, we provided webinars with industry experts and virtual panel discussions with lawmakers.

When the Feast in the East had to be canceled, we worked with our member partner GreatHorse and pivoted our signature event to a livestreamed Iron Chef-styled competition, complete with take-out packages mailed to our guests.

Our board president, Charlie Christianson, sums it up best: “I’m proud of the ERC5′s position, with the full support of our board of directors, to provide referrals, resources and tangible events. Our message is clear, we will get through this adversity together. No business should feel alone in 2021.”

We certainly aren’t the only organization structured with a reliance on large events and in-person attendance. Our good friends at the Lupa Zoo in Ludlow have been a fixture of our community since 1996, teaching us about wildlife conservation in a way that’s entertaining and family friendly. As it turns out, when you’re a zookeeper you can’t exactly schedule a virtual feeding for the bears or monkeys! As many of our businesses transitioned to lockdown, Lupa Zoo continued to operate and quickly figured out a way to do virtual class sessions with its partners at the Springfield Public Schools.

Lupa Zoo’s executive director Joan Lupa said, “There was a demand in the community for safe outdoor fun, and we were the perfect place to visit.” As the gates opened, staff constructed and installed safety protocols for guests, and they saw an immediate increase in zoo memberships and attendance. Parents had a safe place to take their children to explore and learn about the incredible animals at the zoo.

And, the ERC5 would be remiss if we didn’t mention that the staff at the Lupa Zoo are constantly paying it forward. In collaboration with the Chicopee Public Schools, the zoo provides a special training program for students with disabilities, teaching critical job-related skills, which are used to find future employment. Visit the website to learn more about our favorite zoo online at lupazoo.org.

We also witnessed a plethora of shifts from sales to production and installation throughout the ERC5 membership. However, many actually opened their doors right before the pandemic disrupted our lives.

Tim and Jill Murphy, the owners of East Longmeadow’s premier running shop 4RUN3, were one of them. “We had planned to open our doors right after the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Road Race, parlaying our sponsorship to promote 4RUN3. We did not even entertain the thought of an online shop until we had settled into Center Square Plaza!” But, like so many, 4RUN3 knew it had to adapt to survive and quickly took quick action. 4RUN3 created an ecommerce platform with curbside pickup.

As respected race leaders, 4RUN3′s reputation and relationships with the local running and sports medicine community enabled it to open successfully. 4RUN3 even continued to sponsor races, albeit, virtual ones. As a result, 4RUN3 has established itself as a staple for athletes in our community this year. You can visit the website at 4RUN3.com.

I would like to conclude by saying thank you to our members who continue to support the front lines of this pandemic. During times of crisis, I do as Mister Rogers suggested and look for the helpers. This year, they were countless, and, as I write this, they are still battling. Their kitchen doors stayed open, our shelves stocked, our machines running, our streets safe, and our deliveries coming. They cared for our elderly and at-risk neighbors, and tended to our sick. I will forever be in awe and thank them for the selflessness, valor and courage that fueled them to rise and meet this moment.

The ERC5 has always been the better for having them as members, and we will be forever grateful for their tireless efforts to our community.

Nancy L. Connor is executive director of the East of the River Five Town Chamber (ERC5), which serves the communities of Wilbraham, Hampden, Ludlow, East Longmeadow and Longmeadow. To learn more about the chamber and its work, visit the website, erc5.com.