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The New Way to Shop Local

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It was the middle of March when the retail stores lining Lincoln Avenue closed their doors and restaurants began advertising their takeout options. The mountain shut down early and schools moved to distance learning. Early spring brought the COVID-19 pandemic to Routt County and as residents hunkered down and prepared for long weeks at home, Steamboat Springs became deserted. But several businesses were busier than usual – banks.

Steamboat Springs has many options for banking, and especially local and community banking. Mountain Valley Bank, Alpine Bank, Yampa Valley Bank and Vectra Bank, to name a few, became busier than ever during this time, thanks especially to the newly instated Paycheck Protection Program established by the CARES Act and implemented by the Small Business Administration with the support of the Department of the Treasury.

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) provided small businesses with funds, in the form of a forgivable loan, to pay up to eight weeks of payroll costs including benefits. Businesses could also use funds to pay interest on mortgages, rent, and utilities.

The first round of funding saw $349 billion dispersed quickly to desperate small businesses across the country. The second round of funding provided $310 billion more, which is expected to last until the program ends on June 30. The low-interest loan program was designed to keep millions of workers at small businesses on the payroll and off unemployment during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. Many small businesses in Routt County took advantage of the program and applied for a PPP loan – from restaurants and shops to nonprofits, businesses were desperate to stay afloat during COVID-19 and their banks helped them do just that. But when many business owners found long waits and lack of customer service frustrating, they turned to smaller banks to help.

“When looking at businesses who were extremely successful in receiving PPP funds, they had a good relationship with their bank and banker.”

Adam Wilson, Market President for Vectra Bank in Steamboat Springs

Wilson said the banks were overrun with applications to process and in addition to that, bankers had to learn the guidelines and rules surrounding the program in a matter of days – rules that were constantly changing, too.

“Imagine you work at a retail shop in downtown Steamboat and you usually have 10 customers an hour,” Wilson explained. “Then you get to work one morning and there are 150 customers all needing to be helped immediately.”

Vectra Bank got right to business, communicating with their small business clients and helping them through the process of applying for a loan, suspending mortgage payments or answering the many questions that flooded in.

Downtown retail store Urbane owner Melissa LeBlanc applied for the Paycheck Protection Program right away, when the first round of funding was announced. She received the funds and was able to hire back employees who she had to lay off when the store closed in March.

Vectra Bank helped her through the process, discussed options with her and even sent paperwork over to her before the April 3rd date when she could officially apply.

“There was a lot of communication from them and they were very available to me during this time which was extremely helpful and important – it made the process so much easier and more streamlined,” LeBlanc said. “I knew who I could call to talk to and get real talk, not a party line, if you will.”

The experience wasn’t so smooth for all small business owners though – Scott Boettcher, owner of Big Ed’s Fishing Adventures, was banking with a large national bank when the pandemic hit. He applied for the loan within a day of the program opening and then he waited…and waited. He called customer service and waited on hold some more. When he finally spoke with a representative, he was told that he would receive an email shortly. When the email came through, it said that his application had been received, but in order to increase his chances of securing funds, he should apply again, through another institution.

He submitted a second application, this time through Vectra Bank, and within thirty minutes of applying online, a representative called him to discuss the process.

“For me, the main advantage of a local bank is the response time and the ability to call the bank and speak with a person without sitting on hold for an hour,” Boettcher said. “Throughout the entire application process, I worked with one person and they were incredibly responsive.”

For Boettcher, having PPP funds meant that he was able to pay his employees while his doors were closed and it bought him time to create a strategy for when he was able to re-open.

Ultimately, as Wilson points out, what made the experience smoother for some than for others was the relationship between the bank and the business.

“It’s important for business owners to know and understand how the decisions are being made at the banks and who has the ability to make them,” Wilson said. “If there is an issue, is a business owner calling a 1-800 number or a local number to reach someone who they know?”

When the Paycheck Protection Program was announced, many Presidents and Vice Presidents of local banks spent long days sorting through applications and processing loans themselves – for clients who they knew.

Abby and Eric Schissler, owners of Bella Vista Estate, chose their bank, Yampa Valley Bank, because President PJ Wharton is their neighbor.

“We trust him immensely and knew that if we had the pleasure of banking with him we would be in good hands,” Schissler explained.

And, they point out, another benefit to banking locally is the philanthropy aspect that community banks practice and value. For example, Yampa Valley Bank’s To-Go Together program supported takeout at local restaurants and through it, they were able to donate $53,000 to help those most effected by COVID-19. Alpine Bank designed a Bingo game to help local small businesses during this time – and the number of programs and events that local banks support in more usual times is staggering.

Ultimately, as Wilson puts it, these local banks are in the people business.

“When you have a relationship with your banker and they understand you and your business, when you need something from them, they already know you. We lend first to people. And when you do that, then the person comes first and understanding their financials and their credit worthiness kind of comes afterwards.”

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