“After a disaster like this, about 40 percent of small businesses won’t survive the next two years,” said Washington Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Chevie Ruder.
After water and power had been restored to most of Washington and businesses were back up and running following the Nov. 17 tornado, local business officials and owners had to grapple with trying to salvage the coming holiday shopping season.
But they also had no idea of the heavy battle ahead of them.
“In those first few days we were focused on the immediate, dire needs,” said Chevie Ruder, Washington Chamber of Commerce executive director. “After we could focus more long-term, we learned that there is still far more work to do.”
Ruder said chamber officials had been working with chamber officials in Moore, Okla. and Joplin, Mo., two cities also devasted by tornadoes.
“After a disaster like this, about 40 percent of small businesses won’t survive the next two years,” Ruder said.
That was a statistic she did not want to hear, but knew she needed to hear from her chamber counter-parts.
“That is a very scary number for Washington, because this community is all about small businesses,” she said. “For decades now, when someone says they were going to Washington, people instantly know it means the city with the great little shops on the Square and down Peoria Street, and Lindy’s Downtown Market and all these great local places to eat like Cummings and Washington Family Restaurant.
“If that comes true here — if we lose almost half of our small businesses —this won’t be the Washington we know,” Ruder added.
The chamber started a Shop Washington advertising campaign to let people know that the city businesses were open for business. It also opened a fund at South Side Bank to take donations that pay for marketing campaigns that help all businesses in the city.
The first goal was to get people to come to Washington during the Christmas holiday shopping season.
“There was such great out pouring, but business owners finished this holiday season well behind last year,” Ruder said. Some local business owners estimated their sales were down 20 percent during the holidays in 2013 compared to the same time in 2012.
Krista Piper, owner of Blue on the Washington Square, said Small Business Saturday following the tornado was a very sweet and emotional day.
“We almost cried,” Piper said. “The line (to checkout) was to the door and curved around. And then our cash register went down.”
Piper said it took her more than 20 minutes to get the registers back up and running.
“Not one person left,” she said. “People were here to support us and they were determined to help. We knew it and we felt so loved by that.”
But that kind of support is needed in the coming weeks, months and even years, Ruder said.
The holiday shopping season is important to sustain businesses during the winter months when people don’t want to get out and shop, Ruder said.
“When we are having a winter like this, no one wants to come out,” Ruder said. “And this is when businesses feel the pinch.”
Ruder said early spring shopping is encouraged.
But overall, Ruder said she wants Washington residents to remember to shop local first and wants central Illinois residents to remember to visit Washington.
“We are open for business and no, you are not getting in the way of our rebuilding,” Ruder said. “We will be happy to see you.”
In the coming months, Ruder said the chamber is hoping to continue and possibly increase its marketing campaign for Washington businesses, including non-chamber members.
“We are not leaving business behind,” Ruder said. “We want to see everyone make it.”