The short-term implications of the COVID-19 coronavirus will have a long-term effect on consumer spending and industry recruitment.
That's the assessment of a Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce vice president who has spent a long career in the trenches of economic development, with many of those years served in the local community.
Doug Berry, who heads up industrial recruitment for the local Chamber, took an analytical, and sobering, approach to the local economic impact posed by the pandemic during a virtual gathering of the Bradley Sunrise Rotary Club on Thursday.
Before Berry's electronic presentation, Sunrise Rotarian Cheryl Dunson had surveyed civic-club members on their preferences in the virtual versus in-person meeting style. According to Dunson, the response came as an "overwhelming majority" to continue the virtual meetings for the time being.
Berry said the mid-March shutdown of businesses has resulted in large sums of local revenue lost. That loss is still difficult to grasp as consumers emerge from their homes to make small purchases, balancing personal safety with personal needs.
“Early on, manufacturers were asking us to understand and sort what the job loss would be, but it was impossible to grasp,” Berry said.
Retail stores, hotels and restaurants make up more than 9,000 jobs in Bradley County. Between them and manufacturers, that’s 40% of Bradley County’s local workforce. He said many jobs were not eliminated at the onset of the economic downturn due to Bradley County’s “diversity” in industry and manufacturing.
However, Berry said he is expecting a 12% to 13% unemployment rate for the month of April, which will not include the number of self-employed workers in the county.
The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development is expected to release the state's county-by-county jobless report for April later this month, or into early June.
To help combat the confusion of closures, the Chamber’s Joel Henderson — who leads the organization's marketing, communications and public information efforts — has been conducting curbside interviews with local businesses, giving them the chance to share that they are open and ways customers can order for pickup.
“We’re becoming curbside consumers,” Berry said.
Unprotected by Bradley County’s diversity of industry are car manufacturers, whose interrupted supply chain has meant a longer-than-expected closure.
Berry said the implications for the automotive industry would be good for the U.S. long-term, though. He explained that the coronavirus has highlighted the “weakness” in the international supply chain, potentially encouraging manufacturers to “re-shore” jobs in the U.S.
Berry said creating domestic supply chains and finding a new balance in production and location at the “regional level” will be driven by a desire to establish a more secure local economy that can withstand “shocks” to its system in the future, resulting in smaller ripples for tax revenue.
He added that the pandemic has highlighted the need to define the relationship between state and federal governments.
He said the federal government’s role may evolve into thinking about “what ifs?” and developing safety nets for big industries and small businesses in the future.
Meanwhile, the Chamber has created a small-business assistance program to help keep shops afloat.
“You put everything in your life into your small business, but no one thought we’d experience what the last two months have brought,” Berry said.
Big businesses with deep pockets for savings will likely “be able to weather the storm,” he said. For others, Berry said the small-business program is currently at $60,000 in available funds and looking to expand.
For those businesses that have reopened, Berry said personal protective equipment is essential but scarce.
“PPE is still constrained,” Berry said. “We’re competing for limited resources.”
He predicted PPE may be more widely available to the public and businesses at the “end of June, maybe July,” and is another hiccup resulting from international supply chains.
One manufacturer, who Berry did not name, had to shut down three times to disinfect because employees who were confirmed positive with COVID-19 came to work anyway.
In another case, Cleveland’s Jackson Furniture had to shut down at the onset of the pandemic due to interruptions in its supply chain, but has since reopened. Jackson Furniture has also also had confirmed cases of COVID-19 among its employees.
The coronavirus has forced manufacturers to begin screening employees before they clock in for work each day. Berry said the month of March was the “beginning” of manufacturers dropping everything else to focus all of their attention on the virus.
“Everything collapsed in March,” he said, referring to industries contemplating a future in Bradley County. “Their future thinking stopped.”
But, as businesses reopen, Berry said that “future thinking” is started back up again.
At least three automotive-related manufacturers are eying the Spring Branch Industrial Park for their future operations.
The Cleveland Regional Jetport is also the subject of discussion for a future aerospace research operation, which would include test flights of both manned and unmanned aircraft for “a new generation in flying machinery,” Berry said.
In total, the new developments at Spring Branch could bring $400 million in investments and over 1,200 jobs to Bradley County. Meanwhile, a research operation at the Jetport presents an opportunity for high-skilled workers and a number of high-earning jobs of at least $80,000 a year.
A “big boost” to those recruitments are Bradley County’s education systems. Between technical programs at the high schools, to certification programs at Cleveland State Community College and a “steady supply” of university graduates from Lee University, Berry said Cleveland and Bradley County have an “attractive” education system “that always makes us look good.”
If those prospects come to fruition, Berry said additional revenue will be reflected in the 2022 fiscal year.