by Scott Robertson
“I’m 71 years old and I’ve never lived through anything like the last six months,” says Jim Fisher, a small business owner in Jonesborough, Tenn. Fisher and his wife Lynnea were at their wits’ end earlier this year. Their commercial greenhouse, Linnaea Gardens, rents decorative plants to businesses and maintains those plants at various locations throughout the region. When you see a ficus tree or arrangement of smaller plants in a bank lobby, for instance, Linnaea Gardens may have been hired to put it there and maintain the aesthetic it provides. But, when the COVID crisis hit, the Fishers and their employees were literally shut out of doing business. “We’d have plants locked in buildings,” Jim says. “We couldn’t charge for maintenance because the businesses were closed, but we couldn’t get our plants back out because the buildings were locked. We were literally watching our inventory die on the other side of locked windows and doors.”
It was stories like that of Linnaea Gardents that caused Johnson City-based auto dealer Andy Dietrich to have a sleepless night in early March. Dietrich had spent the day reading and hearing story after story about how the Coronavirus was taking hold in America. Communities were shutting down, and with them the livelihood of business owners like the Fishers had been called into question.
“I was just getting sick. I’d heard too many stories that someone was about to lose their small business because of this,” Dietrich says. “I’ve been so blessed, and these are the people that have always given business to us when things were rocking and rolling. I mean, we’re still selling some cars; I can’t just sit here and do nothing for these people in their darkest hour.”
So, the next day, Dietrich spent seven hours on the phone talking with executives at the Chambers of Commerce and economic development organizations based in the Tri-Cities. After speaking with Miles Burdine of the Kingsport Chamber, Beth Rhinehart of the Bristol Chamber and Bob Cantler of the Johnson City Chamber, Clay Walker of NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership and Mitch Miller of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, Dietrich’s idea was beginning to coalesce into a plan for a radiothon or telethon. He got in touch with retired radio executive Don Raines and the station managers of WCYB-TV5 and NewsChannel 11, WJHL.
The pandemic got in the way of those plans, however, Dietrich says. “It was going to be hard to have 20 different people out there on a dedicated line that’s spread out with everybody working from their homes.” At that point, Mitch Miller, who had spearheaded the creation of the RegionAHEAD website, offered to put a “Donate Here” button on the site.
But before funds could be accepted, the legal I’s had to be dotted and T’s had to be crossed. Melissa Steagall-Jones of Blackburn, Childers and Steagall volunteered hours of accounting compliance work, while Joel Conkin of the law firm of Wilson, Worley provided pro bono legal assistance. Because donations were to go to private businesses, they could not be tax-deductible. The organization also had to distribute whatever funds were allocated to each business as grants, not forgivable loans, and the organization had to complete its business by the end of the year. Within a few short weeks, all of that had been accomplished to the satisfaction of both the Tennessee and Virginia state governments.
The next step was publicizing the fact that a place existed where individuals or organizations could make donations with 100 percent of the money going to help small business owners across the region. A Zoom meeting was quickly scheduled with advertising agencies, creative companies and print media joining the broadcasters who were already on board. Tony Treadway of Creative Energy, Chris Bowen of Cumberland Marketing and Ashley Shutt or ARO Creative came on board. The media all donated promotional time and/or space in their traditional and digital products.
Shutt’s firm had been hired to design the original RegionAHEAD website, which was designed to give small local businesses the chance to freely advertise that they were still doing business during the pandemic, and to state whether they were allowing customers inside, offering pick-up service, or doing business entirely online. Once the campaign activated, ARO offered its services without compensation, and easily put in the most hours of any organization involved in the effort.
Because ARO was orchestrating the website, Shutt and her team worked to create the online pay portal through which donations could be accepted. In addition, her team created the forms that applicants would fill out online to submit for consideration. The criteria for consideration were written by Miller, with input from Scott Robertson of the Business Journal, who researched similar efforts elsewhere and offered best practices; Burdine, who provided input based on the Leadership Tennessee consideration criteria and rubric and Scott Jeffress of the Roan Scholars program at East Tennessee State University, who offered input based on that program’s consideration rubric. In addition, Claudia Byrd of Speedway Children’s Charities volunteered input on how to avoid potential pitfalls while maximizing the efficiency of the project.
As donations began to pour in, Bob Cantler oversaw the finances in an account provided (along with a donation) by a regional financial institution that prefers to remain anonymous. At the same time, applications were also arriving in volume. Again, Shutt’s team took responsibility for cataloguing every application for consideration by the allocations committee, which would be made up of individuals from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia who donated their time to read and carefully consider each applicant’s information.
By this time, Chambers of Commerce and other individuals interested in supporting small business in the region had joined the Zoom calls updating the progress, so that around 35 people from Greene County, Tennessee to Tazewell County, Virginia were taking part in soliciting donations and making small businesses aware of the opportunity to obtain funding.
The first of three $50,000 donations received by the effort came from BrightRidge (the former Johnson City Power Board). “I mentioned it to (Washington County, Tennessee Mayor) Joe Grandy, and he said the county commission had been looking for ways to help the citizens of the county,” Dietrich said, “and Joe’s also on the BrightRidge Board.” Grandy spoke with CEO Jeff Dykes and they agreed to discuss with the BrightRidge board the possibility of making one or more sizable donations.
After the initial BrightRidge donation was announced, Dykes made a point of saying the donation was for use through the entire region, not just the BrightRidge service area and that, “BrightRidge’s hope is others will see the need of the small business person in our area and support the Region-
AHEAD initiative.” That wish came true when Ballad Health matched BrightRidge’s donation.
An anonymous committee volunteered the time and effort to read more than 200 applications from Greene County, Tenn., in the west to Tazewell County, Va., in the east. Grants were awarded in amounts ranging from $1,000 to $10,000.
Shutt and her team at ARO took the data in each nomination and prepared it for the allocations committee, saving committee members hours of work in determining such details as the relative completeness of each application. “We were just happy to be able to make a contribution to other businesses in our community,” Shutt said of the long hours her staff worked.
In all, $256,746 was raised and distributed to small businesses across the region. “I am pleased to announce that following our final allocations committee meeting today, we have officially awarded 39 Tenn., businesses totaling $147,996 and 32 Va., businesses totaling $108,750,” Rhinehart said in closing out the account. “Our allocations committee did an exceptional job of reviewing every application we received and working to insure all those that submitted requests for grants were given fair consideration. This program has been very rewarding for myself and my peers and seeing how our community partners responded to the needs of our region has made me very proud to call this area my home.”
As for Linnaea Gardens, the business applied for and received a grant from the fund. “We’re delighted,” Fisher says. “We appreciate everyone who made this possible, and look forward to using these funds to help as we move to what I’m sure everyone hopes will be better days ahead.”
RegionAHEAD Local Business Recovery Fund
Grants to Virginia Companies Include:
A Likely Yarn Arts, Abingdon
Abingdon Vineyards, Abingdon
Advantage Supply Center, Inc., Abingdon
Catering By Catherine, Abingdon
Crisp Family Coach, North Tazewell
Crooked Cabin Properties, Abingdon
Griffin’s Why Not Clothing LLC dba Studio 6, Bristol
Homeslice Cafe & Catering, Abingdon
High Tides Tanning LLC, Marion
Innovative Graphics & Design, Inc., Norton
J&N Tool and Supply LLC, Bristol
Jai Jalaram Krupa Inc. dba Knights Inn, Glade Spring
Magic of Massage Inc. Bristol
Mountain Empire Gymnastics, Bristol
Mountain Sports Limited, Bristol
New China House, Marion
Olive Branch Day Spa, Clintwood
Park Avenue Academy of Cosmetology, Wise
Past Time Antique Emporium, Marion
Paul’s Fan Company, Grundy
Play Date DBA Play Now, Abingdon
Pocahontas Off Road, LLC dba Real McCoy Cabins, Pocahontas
Powers Fitness, LLC dba Body Works Fitness & Training Center, Abingdon
Salon Bristol, Bristol
Signature Salon LLC, Bristol
Stone Mountain Adventures, LLC, Norton
The Gallery at Barr Photographics, Abingdon
The Outlet Store, Grundy
Trailhead Lodging LLC, Bluefield
Universal Crane & Construction. Grundy
White Birches Inn LLC, Abingdon
Wise Lumber & Supply, Inc., Wise
Grants to Tennessee Companies Include:
A Clean Connection of Tri Cities LLC, Kingsport
Appalachian Light & Production LLC, Telford
At Your Services LLC, Elizabethton
Best Uniform Center, Kingsport
Bob’s Dairyland, Inc, Roan Mountain
Bolton Ventures, LLC dba Quantum Leap Trampoline Sports Arena & Badl Axe Throwing Arts, Kingsport
Boone Lake Marina, Piney Flats
Braeden’s BBQ Accommodations, Kingsport
Burleson Transport LLC, Elizabethton
Center Street Grill & Smoke House, Kingsport
Connect Outdoors, Inc., Johnson City
Express AV LLC, Bristol
Fanatics 101, Johnson City
Hair Additions, Johnson City
Highrise Medical Supply LLC, Johnson City
Jump TN LLC, Greeneville
KDBlaine Enterprises LLC dba Downtown Yoga Center, Johnson City
Kindermusick Room, Jonesborough
King’s Sport Axe House, Kingsport
Linnaea Gardens Inc., Jonesborough
Merle Norman, Elizabethton
Mountain River Guides Inc DBA USA Raft Adventure Resort, Erwin
Mountain Empire Comics, Bristol
North Main Audio Customs Inc., Greeneville
Nolichucky Gorge Campground & Cabins, Erwin
Pennyman’s Diner, Johnson City
Plant Palace Florist & Gifts, Erwin
Plaques Etc., Kingsport
Simple Elegance Tennessee, Jonesborough
Sports Image Inc., Kingsport
TasteBudz Accommodations, Johnson City
Taylor Made Grooming Lounge, Greeneville
The Station at 19E LLC, Roan Mountain
The Wooden Hanger, Kingsport
Timber!, Johnson City
Union Street Gallery LLC, Erwin
Union Street Taproom. Erwin
We Run Events LLC, Bristol
Wood Service Center Inc., Kingsport