U.S. Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley (D-Mass.) delivered opening remarks at a Harvard-sponsored panel Friday during which local entrepreneurs and non-profit leaders discussed how they navigated the pandemic-induced recession.
Business School senior fellow and former U.S. Small Business Administration administrator Karen G. Mills ’75 moderated the discussion, which sought to illuminate the challenges small business owners have endured over the past year and “consider what the future will look like,” per the event’s webpage.
Rock City Pizza owner Joseph J. Charles, Cambridge Chamber of Commerce President David P. Maher, Brighton Main Streets director Aidan M. McDonough, and Big Dipper Hospitality co-founder Rachel Miller Munzer shared firsthand accounts of the pandemic’s impact during the panel discussion.
Pressley said small businesses have been “destabilized” and “devastated” by the pandemic and recognized the acute need for relief she has seen in her district.
She added her leadership philosophy is to “cooperatively govern,” saying she is “a firm believer that the people closest to the pain should be the closest to the power.”
“It’s how we better understand the complexity of the challenges, but where we develop the most innovative solutions,” Pressley said. “And then I can, in turn, practice what is my love language — which is policy — and ensure that that policy is responsive.”
The additional $7 billion allocated for the Paycheck Protection Program in the recently passed American Rescue Plan Act was one example of how “policy solutions improve when lawmakers actively enlist and engage the expertise of those closest to the pain,” according to Pressley.
“My team and I reached out proactively to small business owners across the district, and we enlisted them in improving the program for the next rounds of funding, and we were able to create set-asides for micro-businesses with 10 employees, nonprofits, and nearly half of the remaining funds of the program for those employers with less than 200 employees,” she said regarding the Paycheck Protection Program.
“That was an intervention and advocacy that was responsive to what I heard directly from small business owners,” she added.
The ultimate goal of recovery, Pressley said, should not be a return to “a pre-COVID status quo normal.”
“This is the opportunity and the time for reconstruction — that we chart a brighter path forward, one that is more just and more equitable, one that centers the dignity of every member of our community — and we will do that together,” she added.
Pressley also lauded the resilience of small business owners and thanked them for their contributions to her district.
“Thank you for being good neighbors. Thank you for caring about your community. Thank you for all the ways in which you contribute to our culture, to our economy,” she said.
Mills began the panel portion of the event by saying small businesses are critical to the country and that the Covid-19 pandemic has made it “the most challenging time” for them.
She went on to ask panelists — entrepreneurs and city leaders — about the innovations they have made.
Munzer said she shut down three restaurants “as soon as the pandemic hit.” One of her business partners suggested they convert one of the restaurants in Kendall Square to a corner grocery store, which is now operating as Vincent’s Corner Grocery. Charles, the owner of Rock City Pizza in Allston, said he converted a “late night window” into a “curbside pickup window,” which many customers gravitated to.
Maher, the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce president, discussed the organization’s pivot to becoming a source of information and an advocate for small businesses.
“We have to do more. We have to be able to respond,” Maher said. “In Cambridge, there was an extraordinary response to that, just looking at the reduction in fees that the city came up with in 2021, which were 40 percent reduction in fees for liquor [licenses] and in permitting.”
Maher said he hopes to see the city help small business owners “maneuver and jump through all the hoops” of starting a business like licensing, inspections, plumbing, and more.
In an interview after the panel discussion, McDonough, the Brighton Main Streets director, said many businesses in his area have expressed concerns about rent.
“If there was a wish that I could have granted, it would just be to be able to provide that kind of funding, so that many of our businesses could get ahead of their rent, because while they’re not paying it, it’s still accruing, and it has to get paid somehow,” he said.
McDonough said he expects businesses to continue “exploring” the innovation and creativity they have fostered during the pandemic.
“One thing I would want to leave is just this notion of the ‘new normal’ and what it will look like, and really exploring these waves of innovation and creativity to make sure businesses can always stay afloat and have solutions already put into place that they may not be aware of,” he said.
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