By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
SOUTHGATE – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spoke and answered questions at a small business roundtable Feb. 24 sponsored by the Southern Wayne County Regional Chamber at the Downriver Community Conference Center.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-12th District) attended the event, which was moderated by SWCRC President and CEO Ron Hinrichs.
Dingell said she knows it has been a rough couple of years for everybody.
“It’s been hard,” she said. “Some businesses haven’t made it, you’ve struggled to get the small business loans, you struggled in terms of COVID protocols, you’ve struggled trying to find people to work for you, you’ve had a lot of intense opinions and feelings and concerns, and I do want you to know that people do listen.”
Dingell said times are hard for everybody, and encouraged ongoing dialogue, saying Whitmer is somebody who understands business.
“This is somebody who wants to make the state of Michigan thrive,” she said. “She wants to attract business and she wants to support you and she wants to hear what’s on your mind.”
Whitmer said there are a lot of things that they have to stay focused on, despite all the tumult.
“We’ve never had resources like what we have right now,” she said. “We’ve got to be strategic, and smart, and work together to make sure we prioritize those resources.”
Whitmer said the state is being put on a path for long-term prosperity and opportunity for everyone, and the state is experiencing its best recovery in its history.
“We’ve got one of the best recoveries in the country,” she said. “We are in the midst of a manufacturing boom, we’ve created over 20,000 good-paying jobs in mobility in the last few years, and we have become a standout for investors.”
Whitmer said that last December, elected officials in Lansing worked together and helped land General Motor’s biggest investment in its corporate history, a $7 billion investment in Michigan.
She said in the upcoming state budget, she has included several investments to help small businesses.
“Right now, we’ve got to give more support to retain and recruit workers, expand operations and attract additional investment,” Whitmer said. “I am suggesting that we back our successful workforce development programs.”
She said that during the pandemic, 23 different economic programs were set up to support small businesses, and more than $420 million in relief went directly to small businesses, which helped retain more than 200,000 jobs, and which included small business restart grants, which helped 14,441 small businesses and non-profits, 30 percent of which were minority, woman or veteran-owned businesses.
Whitmer said the state helped every employer who had to lay off employees due to the pandemic.
“We have the ability to rise to the moment in front of us,” she said. “I am excited about what the opportunity looks like, and I am eager to work with you to make sure that we realize the potential, we leverage every dollar and we give the people of this state the absolute best, because they deserve nothing less.”
Three Downriver small business owners shared their challenges with Whitmer, including Joe Richert, CEO of Special Tree Rehabilitation Systems in Romulus, Flat Rock restaurant owner John Fiorelli, and Zach Johnson, owner of Rev’d Up Fun in Woodhaven.
Richert spoke about the crisis in the rehabilitation industry as a result of car insurance law changes.
He said the industry is in crisis, and since July 1, when the final elements of the reform were implemented, his business has lost $7 million.
Richert spoke of a 25-year-old single mom who was struck by a vehicle while pushing her car, who became an above-the-knee double amputee. He said her prosthetic legs are sitting on a shelf because insurance will no longer pay for the rehabilitation therapy needed for her to adapt to them.
“Reimbursement is off the rails right now,” he said. “We need a fix, and I would hope you do know that there is sufficient support for making the fixes to address this current calamity.”
Whitmer said she has heard other stories of reimbursement rate and timely payment problems, and said the situation is “ripe for improvement.”
Fiorelli said his restaurant is facing the challenge of worker shortages, and he now operates with half the staff he had pre-COVID.
He said his restaurant’s biggest challenge is recruiting skilled people for the back of the house operations, particularly kitchen staff. He said people don’t show up for job interviews, and their pay scale has increased by 40 percent.
“The hospitality industry is a great place to work, provides a ton of flexibility and skill sets employees can use throughout their life, while providing for themselves and their families,” he said. “Michigan lost 3,000 restaurants during the pandemic, and we don’t want to add to this statistic.”
Whitmer said lack of childcare is keeping a lot of people out of the workforce, and investment is needed on that front.
She said that when some states ended unemployment benefits early, they did not see an increase in workplace participation.
Fiorelli said he is dumfounded that people don’t appear to want to return to work.
Johnson, who works in the family entertainment industry, said their 36-week closure in 2020 took a toll on his business, and he is at risk of losing his life savings.
“We opened Rev’d Up Fun in July 2018 with the goal of bringing people together through fun experiences,” he said. “When the goal of your business is to bring people together, you can begin to see how COVID-19 devastated our small business.”
Johnson said few business categories were affected more severely than family entertainment. He said his parents, his partners in the business, risked losing their retirement life savings and their house, and he risked having a way to support his family.
He said government programs like the payroll protection program helped them, but it was discouraging to see other types of businesses receive more help than his industry.
Johnson said family entertainment businesses were not eligible for the federal shuttered venue grant. He said they were also unable to receive help from programs designed to help restaurants.
“We are thankful that we now have the opportunity to apply for the afflicted business relief grant program, made possible by the state’s American Rescue Plan Act,” he said. “It is my hope that we will have a different experience with this program, and will at least have an opportunity for some of those funds.”
Johnson said his business also has challenges hiring employees.
He said independent small businesses help give Downriver its unique appeal, and he called for government collaboration to help support them.
“When we lose small businesses, we lose creativity, ingenuity and employment, and worst of all, the American dream,” Johnson said.
David Glaab, a supervisor with Huron Township, expressed frustration with getting people back to work, and questioned the extension of unemployment benefits.
Whitmer said current state demographics are not helping the employment picture, and that many older people retired and left the work force during the pandemic.
She said that even though the most recent census shows that Michigan’s population has grown, it hasn’t grown as much as some other states.
Whitmer said jobs in cutting-edge industries, like battery and semi-conductor plants, will help grow the state’s population.
She said in the short term, people are not returning to the work force because of COVID-19 concerns and lack of daycare options.
“These are legitimate options that we are seeking to alleviate by creating more daycare options for working families,” she said. “There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle, and it is not a unique problem that Michigan is confronting.
“I talk to my colleagues all across the country, and we are all trying to encourage people to come back into the workforce.”