HURON COUNTY — The Upper Thumb is not out of the woods yet regarding the coronavirus pandemic, but the Huron County Economic Development Corporation is still looking for ways of improving the environment for small businesses in the area.
Carl Osentoski, the executive director of the Huron County EDC, said it has been looking at ways of not necessarily bringing in new businesses, but rather remote workers, as there is little chance the area can attract a 1,000-person factory.
“People in Detroit have been told they are not going back into their offices until June of next year,” Osentoski said, noting the opportunity to attract some of those workers to the Upper Thumb. “People come here as it’s a vacation area, so they know the area well. So, we’re looking at how do we take a vacation area and package that in a way to attract people here.”
The EDC has also been looking at filling up empty storefronts with small-scale manufacturers, like soap makers, bakeries, or artisan furniture makers. There are still wrinkles to work through on that idea, as some local zoning ordinances do not allow manufacturing in commercial spaces.
“Those work for the scale of the communities,” Osentoski said. “They fill up empty spaces, bring people downtown, and they can work online. It’s an interesting blend.”
With winter coming up fast, a historically slow time for Huron County, a way the EDC is looking into bringing people downtown involves wintertime activities businesses can sponsor, like hockey, broomball or Christmas caroling. The EDC cannot create events, but it can provide information to chambers of commerce, businesses and municipalities to consider new opportunities.
Osentoski also noted that in about two to three weeks, Huron County will kick off working with Connect Michigan in looking at expanding broadband services in the county, once committee members are fully assembled. Osentoski is currently working with Sanilac County on a similar project.
He noted that Huron County lies in a region identified by the federal government as underserved for broadband internet and that in some school districts, 30% of students and teachers are without broadband. It is an issue across the board for schools and businesses.
In Sanilac County, residents have been asked to fill out a survey about internet access in their area. A similar one will be available for Huron County residents in the future, with the goal of figuring out where there are gaps in service and how service providers can work with the county to fix that.
“This is not a slam on our providers, they do phenomenal work,” Osentoski said. “Its just a reflection of the challenges of being in a rural area.”
If there is one thing that the EDC has learned throughout this pandemic going into its eighth month, it is that it needs to provide support to local business in new and different ways. Osentoski said the EDC’s Facebook page now pushes information about small business workshops, and grant opportunities. It is also looking into different crowdfunding opportunities that would allow residents to invest locally instead of New York or Chicago.
The pandemic has also shown that small businesses and downtowns are important to the lifeblood of this community. But the EDC is still looking to refine its efforts in order to have a more positive impact on the community.
One such change is how the Small Business Administration is now offering small business workshops through Zoom instead of just in-person ones requiring travel to Flint or Bay City.
“Before, you would have to take a day off and drive to the workshop,” Osentoski said, noting that some small business owners could not afford to leave their store unattended. This would give business owners more opportunities to attend such meetings.