Small businesses are the power behind our communities. South Carolina alone has 430,000 small businesses that employ more than 800,000 people. Millions more small businesses employ millions more people across the country. However, during the pandemic, small businesses faced unique economic challenges to keep their doors open. The pandemic made it apparent that small businesses need robust infrastructure support in order to grow and thrive. The bipartisan infrastructure plan in Congress will fund much-need investments in physical and broadband infrastructure that will revitalize the local and national economy and position small businesses to withstand the next financial crisis. Small businesses are glad to see our elected officials come together in efforts to pass legislation that will create jobs, improve wages, and support entrepreneurship and innovation.
The fact is that small businesses rely on physical infrastructure more than large businesses because they don’t have the resources to adapt to challenges and setbacks posed by faulty roads, bridges, and broadband. Small business owners can’t just move their business location if the road to get there is filled with potholes. Instead, they have to hope that the roads are manageable enough for customers to navigate. But each day that the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations stalled, hope would wane for small businesses as they waited for critical investments that could support our economic recovery.
In South Carolina, there are 745 bridges and over 3,780 miles of highway in poor condition. It’s no longer easy for potential customers to drive down Spruill Avenue for their favorite meal with owners that have contributed to the fabric of the community. Those customers are now faced with a longer and bumpier commute and have very few alternatives, such as bike lanes and walking paths.
At the same time, South Carolina is very familiar with the impacts of disinvestment in broadband infrastructure on our small businesses in rural and low-income areas. There are tremendous gaps in reliable broadband access in rural pockets of South Carolina. Twelve percent of South Carolinians live in areas where no broadband infrastructure provides minimally acceptable speeds. And more than half of South Carolinians live in areas where there is only one provider. During the pandemic and through Lowcountry Local First’s Good Enterprises program, we’ve heard firsthand about the challenges small business owners of color and in rural communities faced when trying to pivot their business model to adopt online platforms with little or no high-speed Internet access. As an organization, we also had difficulty relaying quality education and assistance to these communities who couldn’t easily access the resources and programs we provided online.
The pandemic created an online customer base that many small business owners did not expect, and many were unprepared. However, to sustain this base, create a level playing field for small businesses across the country, and build a long-term small business ecosystem, we must invest in enhanced and expanded broadband that will allow owners to access customers and suppliers and create demand for the goods and services they have to sell.
It’s also important to note that while the bipartisan infrastructure plan includes critical investments that will help small businesses on their road to recovery after the pandemic, more is needed to help them overcome the economic obstacles that they are currently facing. Many small businesses are starting from zero. They need infrastructure reform to include provisions outlined in the White House’s American Jobs Plan to get them to a level of substantial recovery. This must include funding for community-based incubators and innovation hubs, workforce development, and increased small business contracting for businesses in rural and under-resourced areas. We also need a plan that invests in clean energy policies to tackle the effects of climate change that are increasingly harming small businesses here in the Lowcountry and across the U.S. Over the past decade, we’ve suffered from 37 extreme weather events that cost the state $20 billion. The White House’s proposal to invest $50 billion to improve our resiliency and help recover from these extreme weather events is a good first step to supporting our local businesses. Charleston small business owner Michael Shemtov supports these investments and has said, “We are already seeing the effects of climate change both locally and globally. We cannot afford inaction or we will risk losing much of what we love about our hometown. The small business community urges Congress to act to save not just our livelihoods, but possibly our children’s lives as well.”
Additionally, we hope that any final infrastructure package will include more unrestricted grant and loan programs for small businesses. The ongoing need for hard-hit entrepreneurs who are desperate for relief will require a long-term, substantial commitment that extends beyond small-dollar grants and loans. While federal relief programs provide a crucial lifeline for many businesses, small businesses need unrestricted funding because only they can determine how to utilize funding best to keep their businesses open.
While the plan is finally moving forward after weeks of delays, small businesses can’t afford to wait any longer for legislation that will help support entrepreneurship and innovation. We can’t stop now, not when there are opportunities on the table to make real and significant changes to how we can genuinely help our small businesses thrive and grow. Policymakers must support the movement on this bill and not get distracted by any political theater. Small, local businesses in South Carolina and around the country need action now.
–Jacquie Berger, Executive Director, Lowcountry Local First (Small Business Majority partner) and Xiomara Peña, Vice President, Engagement, Small Business Majority