Phoebe Nipper owns two businesses in the Baker County town of Glen St. Mary, which has a population of around 600 people.
One is a dance studio for kids, Fabulous Footwork. The other is Donna’s Beautiful Dresses, a dress shop located next door to the dance studio, specializing in prom dresses. It’s a business that she inherited from her late mother.
In March, Nipper had to close both as the pandemic spread and schools went virtual.
Now, she’s beginning to reopen the dance studio.
“Right now at our studio, we're probably at 50% coming back, opening, because many people are afraid to come back, number one, or they've lost their jobs and they can't afford to come back,” Nipper said. “They can't afford extracurricular activities.”
While she believes Fabulous Footwork will survive, she’s less confident in the dress shop, since the business was devastated as most proms were cancelled.
“Both of these businesses were growing,” Nipper said. “Donna’s Beautiful Dresses was new to this area, and it was growing year by year. Fabulous footwork had been growing every year and we'd started with 40 students and now we’re at 175 students....everything’s been affected.”
While cities like Jacksonville were able to help out small businesses with millions of dollars in loans and grants, Baker County - which has fewer than 30,000 people - simply doesn’t have the resources.
Jeff Hendry, the executive director of the North Florida Economic Development Partnership, said rural counties in Florida are taking an enormous economic hit.
“In a word, I'd say - devastating,” Hendry said. “They're facing challenges that they have never faced before.”
Hendry said while larger businesses and large county governments have several departments to handle applying for federal and local loans, small businesses and rural towns are normally less equipped with significantly smaller staffs.
“They're pulled in so many different directions, and to be able to turn around and be focused on ‘what is it going to take for my business to be successful? And how am I going to get through this loan process?’ It's a very stressful, stressful thing,” Hendry said.
Hendry said rural small businesses typically have less back-up cash flow during economic downturns. If the small business is a restaurant, there aren’t necessarily services like UberEats to help them reach customers in new ways. Curbside pickup isn’t as common either.
And rural businesses typically have smaller customer bases, since they lie in more sparsely populated areas.
“Many of the family restaurants and retail stores are dependent on people working downtown,” Hendry said. “If other businesses are not open or they're not open to capacity, it just kind of multiplies the difficulty in some of those retail and family restaurants being able to get the necessary traffic in to have meals bought, or to have their employees taken care of.”
According to Hendry, the long-lasting effects of the pandemic on rural economies won’t truly be known for the next six to 12 months.
Florida has received over $3.7 billion in federal CARES Act funding, but only 12 counties with populations over 500,000 have seen that money. Rural counties are just now being told that they would begin getting their portion of the much needed funds, nearly three months after the start of the shutdowns.
In the meantime, small business owners in rural areas needing money had to get it through the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL).
As for PPP loans for businesses, they require owners to work with a bank to apply.
Greg Sheppard owns the Crooked Rooster Brewery in Macclenny — the only craft brewery in Baker County. When Shepard tried to work on a loan, he kept getting referred to another bank....and another.
“I didn't have three years’ financial history with them, commercial finances, they couldn't do anything,” Sheppard said about trying to find a bank. “So then they referred me to another bank. And then that bank says, ‘Well, we don't take applications if you're less than 500 employees, or if you're less than, you know, $100,000 - I mean, less than $250,000 a year.”
At the local level, Sheppard said he doesn’t really expect much help from Baker County.
“A small community like this, we just don't have those reserves,” Sheppard said. “Our county commissioners and city council, they're spending their money on infrastructure, repairs, core needs, they don't have the reserves to go out and give everybody in the county $1,000.”
Sheppard said at some point, he just decided to stop trying to get extra financial help, and attempted to make it through with what they currently had.
He instead decided to focus on improving the business’s presence online, which he says is another issue many of the businesses in rural areas deal with.
“Other small businesses that are small eateries, they're known by word of mouth,” Sheppard said. “But somebody traveling through town is not going to know about them. I don't think they're going to be able to pivot and get that digital presence out there to draw in customers. They might already be the walking dead, if you will.”
With an improved digital presence through Facebook and Instagram, The Crooked Rooster has been able to improve their reach into Jacksonville and surrounding areas.
He says because there isn’t a lot to do in Macclenny, residents leave in the summer. The busy season for The Crooked Rooster is between September and May.
Around March, when everything was shutting down, Shepard said sales dropped to just 10% of what they were. He estimates it’ll take around a year to regain the momentum his business had going into 2020.
Sheppard is more concerned about other businesses in the town who are worse off than him.
“I don't want to see Main Street small town America dry up and have a bunch of shutter businesses,” Sheppard said. “No, I’d hate to see that, but I think there is a possibility that that could happen. And then you're kind of like Radiator Springs in that Disney movie Cars, the other little town that kind of withered away.”
There are some benefits to the small town life where everyone knows everyone though. Shepard says he’s coordinated with other local spots to cross-promote special deals.
And Nipper said parents from the dance studio have helped her pay her utility bills when times got really tough.
“A lot of the community steps up and comes up and asks you, ‘do you need anything?’” Nipper said. I know that's different in our area. I don't know if that's something special, but it's special to me.”
The studio makes a large chunk of its profits from an end-of-the-year dance recital. Now, it’ll try to put the
show on virtually and recoup some of its financial losses.
For rural economies, Hendry said he sees this as an opportunity to reimagine themselves. Recently, he said there has been extra interest in rural realty, as people get used to doing their jobs from home and want to move to a less densely populated region.
“The challenge with that is we're going to have to build the infrastructure to be able to accommodate hopefully a gradual or incremental growth in our population,” Hendry said.
There’s plenty of space left outside the major cities in Florida. Rural Florida makes up 62% of the state, according to Hendry, although just 5% of the population lives there.
Sky Lebron can be reached at email@example.com, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.