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Uniting for DeKalb County: new initiative builds small business network to spread support

New initiative aims to support small businesses in uncertain times

Cohen Barnes, DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation president and owner of Sundog, stands in a very empty downtown DeKalb Tuesday afternoon. Many buinesses in the area have been forced to close during Illinois Gov. JB Pritzkers stay-at-home order.
Cohen Barnes, DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation president and owner of Sundog, stands in a very empty downtown DeKalb Tuesday afternoon. Many buinesses in the area have been forced to close during Illinois Gov. JB Pritzkers stay-at-home order.

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DeKALB - As days stretch into weeks for business owners in DeKalb County, unsure of when, or if, their doors will reopen, a community-led initiative is here to help, uniting residents as pandemic losses continue to rise.

DeKalb County University and Neighbors Investing Together for Economic Success -- or DeKalb County UNITES, for short -- is a small business task force which began just days ago, aimed at connecting residents to accessible ways to best help support small businesses suffering due to continued COVID-19-related closures. It's been nine days since Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker banned all dine-in services for restaurants in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which as of Tuesday had infected 1,535 and killed 17. And four days since a shelter-in-place executive order stretched the dwindling crowds buying take-out meals to even less and forced 'non-essential' operations to close through April 7.

"As a small business owner, going through 2008 is still fresh in my mind, as it is for many of us," said Cohen Barnes, owner of Sundog: IT in DeKalb. "Not only am I serious about my own livelihood, taking care of my family, but I've got 18 people who work for me. All of them depend on me for their mortgages, to put food on the table."

Barnes, along with Rena Cotsones, associate vice president of outreach, engagement and regional development at Northern Illinois University are heading up the initiative, with area chambers of commerce, the DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation, the DeKalb County Convention & Visitors Bureau, and representatives from area businesses, banks and government agencies.

The mission? Buy local, sell local, eat local, be local.

"We all have family, neighbors who work for small businesses," Barnes said. "Everybody knows someone who works for a small business. How can we identify businesses in crisis mode, what is it they sell, what will make the biggest impact on them that we can buy right now?"

Cotsones called on the cooperative spirit of the taskforce partners' to support not just local businesses, but those they employ that are struggling, not knowing when their next paycheck may be.

"As an anchor institution in the community, NIU has a deep commitment to ensuring the economic viability and quality of life in DeKalb County," she said in a news release. "Small businesses are the heart of any community and they need help right now. Many are struggling to keep their employees employed and paid."

How it works

To get started, the task is simple: small business owners are asked to take a five-question survey which will ask you to describe what products you sell, if you're currently open for business (you can say no if you aren't), what type of purchase or aid would offer the biggest positive impact on your business' ability to collect revenue (future buy commitments, partnerships, etc.), and what can you do to help others in the community right now.

Data collected in the survey will then be mapped out into an intricate web of resources and go-to options for residents looking for meals for their family, apparel for NIU staff, grocery goods.

The small business inventory will be disseminated to the broader DeKalb County region and provide encouragement for residents to order take-out during the shelter-in-place order, call a local business and order a gift card, accelerate the timing of purchasing and support those looking to give back.

The one-stop-shop website also offers information on government aid and how to get involved.

It's the type of community spirit that's cropping up all over the county in the last week. Whiskey Acres Distilling Company changing things up by manufacturing much-needed hand sanitizer for local healthcare workers and first responders. Residents pooling funds to provide meals for staff at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital and supporting local restaurateurs by purchasing meals at a different eatery each day.

"The people in DeKalb County have always amazed me," Barnes said. "To know there's a whole group of community members out there from all aspects of DeKalb County working hard to figure out what they can do to save some businesses. It really warms my heart."

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