Tight-Knit Bonds Set the Stage for Recovery in Crystal Lake

Getting back to “business as usual” is proving anything but typical in these times of uncertainty and rapidly shifting conditions. In Crystal Lake, business leaders are positioning themselves for what’s to come.

The past few months have been anything but typical. Chaos and uncertainty have become standard operating procedure. Forecasts and expectations change on a dime. Carefully laid plans are thrown away or placed on the back burner.

As our region’s businesses try to resume in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the question on many people’s minds is, “Where do we go from here?”

Well before Illinois’ stay-at-home order went into effect March 21, local Chambers of Commerce were monitoring the situation and preparing their members for uncertain times ahead. In the days and months since then, the Crystal Lake Chamber of Commerce has positioned itself as a resource and counselor to its 900 members, most of them small and mid-sized companies with deep ties to McHenry County. Like its members, the organization has had to change how it operates and adjust its strategies for an unfamiliar and ever-changing reality.

As Crystal Lake businesses steadily reopened their doors this summer, we sat down with Nick Kubiak, the Chamber’s marketing and communications manager, to get a sense of how the coronavirus shutdown has impacted this community of nearly 40,000 – and what lies ahead for area businesses of all sizes.

Among this tight-knit community, there’s plenty of optimism, but there’s also a lot of uncertainty about the road ahead.

What sorts of projects has your team been working on since the stay-at-home order began?
We’ve been running campaigns on social media and our website. We have one we call Takeout Tuesday, and that’s encouraging people to take advantage of restaurants that are offering pick-up or delivery. We have the I Love Local campaign, which was a statewide initiative started by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and encourages buying from local businesses. We’ve been sharing daily facts about the benefits of shopping local. One fact that was particularly interesting to me is that 99.6% of businesses in Illinois are small businesses. That’s mind-blowing.

The City of Crystal Lake also has a buy-local initiative it calls I Shop Crystal Lake, and we’ve been pushing that on social media as well. We have the Great American Gift Card Exchange, which is more of a national campaign that encourages buying gift cards to businesses, whether it’s for now or later, just to get more money flowing through the economy.

At the same time, we’ve been making wellness calls to all of our members, to check in and make sure they’re OK, see if they need anything, see if we can push out any information about them. We’ve been keeping a list on our website of restaurants that are open, when they’re open, what they’re serving, and whether they’re offering pickup or delivery.

From what you’re hearing during your wellness calls, what’s on the minds of area business leaders?
It’s a rough time right now for everyone, but the thing about Crystal Lake is that we’re a tight-knit community and always have had a mindset of neighbors helping neighbors. We’ve really been seeing that lately. A lot of businesses are helping front-line workers through their own programs. They want to get back to work, but they’re trying to figure out the timing. The crazy thing about all of this is that we’re learning something new almost every day. We’re just trying to adjust on the fly as much as we can, while still helping out members in every way we possibly can.

What is your team learning as you go?
It’s a small office, so we’re easily working from home. I just started in March, and our new director, Bill Eich started in April. He also serves as CEO of the Crystal Lake Food Pantry. Adjusting and learning on the spot, remotely, has been interesting for us, but it’s really brought us together and really emphasized teamwork over everything. I feel like that can be said of a lot of our members, as well.

What was that like, trying to hire and onboard a new director amidst all of this chaos?
It was a bit crazy. I was hired by the previous CEO on a Tuesday. The next day he stepped down, and on Thursday Gov. JB Pritzker announced the shutdown. Bill Eich, our new president, was hired about three weeks into the shutdown, and he’s been a great leader for the Chamber and the community thus far, during this challenging time. He’s really jumped at every opportunity to help local businesses.

At this point, what sorts of economic indicators are you watching most closely?
We’re of course looking at the monthly unemployment figures, which have been sky high, and we’re looking at the number of businesses that have closed, the number that have suspended operation, as well as the number of businesses that are partially opened or totally opened.

The thing to know about Crystal Lake is that this is a very hospitality-driven area. We have hotels, a lot of restaurants and groceries. A lot of our businesses remained partially open and offering pickup/delivery. Those businesses that were deemed “nonessential” weren’t open and have been trying to figure out how they can stay afloat.

The labor side of things raises such interesting questions, because it’s still a major unknown. From what you’re hearing, to what extent do local businesses expect to ramp up their hiring this summer and into the fall?
Most of our members have adapted their businesses to either work from home or online. They all assumed we would be back in our offices or businesses quickly, so they’ve been frustrated. We have been encouraging them to keep constant communication with their employees regarding their plans and any changes. Back in April, businesses were anxious to sell, and we could see there was a lot of pent-up demand.  

Shifting plans seems to be the new norm. Where are we seeing examples of businesses moving in creative new directions?
The Holiday Inn offered rooms at a heavily discounted rate for people who felt they needed a safe living environment – specifically senior citizens. It’s a really interesting thing they’re doing. They’re giving great rates to seniors who might not be in the best health and want to avoid nursing homes.

We see other Chamber members are offering reduced rates, discounts for pickup/delivery, or virtual opportunities. At the Chamber, we’ve been experimenting with digital tools for delivering services. For example, this afternoon I have a virtual new member orientation. That’s normally an in-person event where we walk members through our website and show them how to make the most of their membership. Now, we’re doing that virtually and also hosting it on Facebook Live. It’s opening up new ways of connecting with our membership.

Like many of its members, Crystal Lake Chamber has developed new ways of using its resources to the benefit of clients.

When it comes to getting the word out about your business in this new environment, what are some successful tactics that can help businesses connect with customers?
One of the biggest challenges for local businesses has been making meaningful connections with their customers without having a physical storefront (or having a limited one). What we’ve found works best is going where consumers currently are – their phone and, specifically, social media. With many people stuck at home, there’s been an increased inclination to look at their phones. Social media allows customers to interact with businesses, and for businesses to maintain a high level of brand awareness. Keeping your business up-to-date on social media is crucial. E-mails can also be valuable at this time, though it’s important not to overload customers’ inboxes, since that could actually lead to a decrease in overall viewership.

We’re still assessing the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our region’s economy, but inevitably, your community has certain fundamental strengths that remain intact. What are the strongest assets of your community?
Our biggest assets would be Three Oaks Recreation Center, Lippold Park, and our Main Beach facility on the Crystal Lake. They’re all very community-based and bring people together. Right now, obviously, they’re not being used much, but a lot of people are still exercising along the paths at Three Oaks and Lippold Park, as well as other corridors in town. We’re also very hospitality-driven, so that’s why we’re seeing a lot of our restaurants doubling down on service with pickup and delivery options.

Crystal Lake has such a variety of business districts, from its downtown filled with homegrown stores and restaurants to the Northwest Highway corridor, where there are more big-box stores, but clusters of local businesses, too. How do these various districts impact the local economy?
We have 900 members spread out all over the city. We have plenty of small businesses with numerous big businesses and options available nearby. The downtown area enjoys a strong sense of unity and purpose. As our businesses work through this pandemic, you can really see that sense of community and local pride – neighbors helping neighbors.

As things have opened up this summer, how do you see these assets factoring into the city’s economic recovery?
These assets will help our economy so much. Places like Main Beach, Lippold Park, Three Oaks – those are major visitor attractions throughout the summer. There’s the beach and music shell at Main Beach. We have sports tournaments at Lippold Park, and at Three Oaks we have a beach, restaurants, hiking trails, boat rentals and a wakeboard park. We get a lot of people coming in to use those facilities, and when they’re here they support our other local businesses.

Getting back to “business as usual” is on everyone’s mind these days. What does the economic recovery look like for your members?
Recovery is really looking like a “new normal.” For a lot of businesses that weren’t offering virtual opportunities – things like online ordering, pickup, delivery, or orientations, like we’re doing – that’s going to be part of the new normal. For the Chamber, we’re likely to host more virtual orientations in the future, just because it’s easier. Our businesses have really had to think outside the box these past few months, and I think it’s shown them these tools can be successful.

Earlier this year we polled city leaders and Chambers of Commerce around the region, and many had high hopes for this year. Thinking back to life pre-COVID-19, what issues were on the minds of your members?
Strangely enough, their biggest concern was the opposite problem we have now. Unemployment was at record lows, and any business that was looking for talent was struggling to find employees. Unfortunately, they’re still struggling with employment, but for different reasons.

I think one positive thing to come from this experience is that a lot of our members weren’t sure how to make the most of their membership and how to get the word out about their business. For the past few months, we’ve really stepped up and shown them what we can do, and how we can help them. I think the role of the Chamber has really been magnified.

We’re trying to help as much as we can with all of our members, trying to get information out as quickly as possible and in the most effective ways.

Crystal Lake’s economic recovery hinges on its numerous assets, including its Main Beach, Three Oaks Recreation Area (above), the Northwest Highway business corridor and the downtown shopping district, says Nick Kubiak of Crystal Lake Chamber.

What role do you see the Chamber playing in helping local business through this time of transition?
We’ll continue emphasizing ways to get information out to the public. We’re using our own social media channels and inviting members to send us information, whether it’s something like operating hours or special deals. We’re also posting updates on our website, under the News for Members tab. So, we’re doing what we can to increase interactions and awareness. It helps our members and the public, as well.

As our readers are looking toward their own recovery plans, what other sorts of resources are available through the Chamber?
If you go to our website, clchamber.com, right on the front page we do a business directory where you can look up any business. They’re all categorized, so if you look up any kind of restaurant, for example, you can see all of the listings we have. We also have a News from our Members page, which provides updates from local businesses. We’re updating that every day. And then we also have restaurant lists, so people know what’s open and how they can place an order online or by phone.

The Expo we typically hold in March was moved to our website, where we’re hosting the first virtual expo in the Chamber’s history. Businesses can reserve a “booth” and take advantage of the amount of traffic our website receives. Again, we’re trying to make up for what we have typically offered in person by offering virtual alternatives that still benefit businesses.

We launched a COVID-19 Compliant Program, so members can go to our website and print off different graphics to post in their businesses and show they’re complying with guidelines.

What’s next on your plate?
Seeing the impact of virtual interactions, we’re going to look at how we can continue that going forward. Happily, we’ve also started holding mixers and orientations in person – face masks and social distancing required, of course.

What can readers do to support your members and community through this recovery?
Shop local. Connect with your local businesses on social media. If you’re debating between online outlets, a large chain store or a small business, try to support those small businesses as much as you can. Every dollar you spend with them has a deep impact on our community. Even our chain stores have a large impact.

The more you shop local, the more money we keep in the local economy. Studies have shown that, if you spend $100 at a locally owned business, $68 stays within the local economy ($43 if it’s a local retail chain), compared to $0 if you buy from online outlets like Amazon. This is according to TheLocalGood.ca.

More importantly, natural disasters pose severe consequences to local businesses. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, between 40% and 60% of small businesses will never reopen following a natural disaster. And, of those that do manage to reopen, only 29% are still operating two years later. Investing your dollars in local businesses right now will help them to weather this COVID-19 pandemic.

We’re very tight-knight here. Neighbors support neighbors, businesses support businesses, and we’re seeing that a lot right now. It brings a smile to my face, seeing businesses support one another. Seeing a strong sense of community is the sliver lining to all of this, I suppose.

Filling in the Gaps with COVID Relief Funds

Nonprofits like DuPage Senior Meal Services have benefitted from relief funds that are helping to meet an increased demand for food, shelter and other basic needs. (Community Foundation of Fox Valley photo)

From the earliest days of the stay-at-home orders, social service agencies in Elgin began planning for what was to come. They could see regional and statewide relief funds popping up, but they were doubtful there’d be enough to go around.

“There was a concern that maybe some of the other funds that were regional or statewide wouldn’t make their way out to Elgin, and the suburbs in general,” says Steve Moon, director of Elgin programs for Grand Victoria Foundation. “That was a big concern for many community members in Elgin, so we thought it would be a good initiative to get something together for the city.”

In mid-May, the Grand Victoria Foundation teamed up with the City of Elgin, United Way Metro Chicago, Seigle Family Foundation, Kaptain Family Trust, Wisdom Family Foundation and Hoffer Family Foundation to provide nearly $90,000 in direct financial assistance to families in need. Money from the Elgin COVID Response Fund will go to area nonprofits, with 100% of funds helping those in need. A second round of donations is expected to go out later this year.

“They were immediately in action, and as someone who is new to the community, it was so inspirational and powerful to see that,” says Moon.

Elgin isn’t alone. All around the northwest suburbs, neighbors are rallying to help those affected economically by COVID-19.

Five Aurora-area grantors partnered up to provide rapid-response funding to nearly 50 area nonprofits. Calling themselves the Fox Valley Grantmakers, the group focused on nonprofits that support basic human needs and mental health. Since March, they’ve awarded nearly $600,000 for things like safety gear, food, housing and technology needs.

The St. Charles Business Alliance has focused its attention on the needs of local businesses. In addition to video marketing, giveaways and special webpages, the team has also sponsored events like Pickup Restaurant Week. The June event used discounts on carry-out orders to entice people into supporting local restaurants.

Meanwhile, the Barrington Area Community Foundation is preparing a third round of funding to help local nonprofits.

The first round, distributed in mid-May, provided $20,000 for area food pantries and related supports. A second round, distributed in June, went toward food needs, counseling services and shelters, such as those which support the homeless and people escaping domestic violence. A third round, to be distributed later this year, will meet those needs and help to bridge funding gaps for area nonprofits.

“Because these organizations weren’t able to do fundraisers for a prolonged period, and probably won’t through the fall, they won’t be able to raise the money that’s essential for nonprofits to continue doing their work,” says Young Chung, BACF President. “One of our interests is in providing some funding for organizations that are facing financial hardships right now.”

So far, BACF has raised more than $150,000, with a pledge to match up to the first $100,000. In all, Chung expects to grant out nearly $500,000 by next spring, tapping into COVID relief funds and BACF’s annual grant cycle.

“When everyone faces a hardship like this, you start to realize we have a common humanity,” he says. “It’s been very encouraging and heartwarming for me. I’ve been very fortunate that this great community has people who come out and work together.”