The Forest Park Chamber of Commerce is hoping to hold the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade in September. | File photo

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The Forest Park Chamber of Commerce not only serves 144 small businesses in town but is itself a small business, which had to survive the pandemic just like the restaurants, retail shops, professional offices, bars and light industry it promotes.

Surviving the virus

Like most other small businesses in town, the Chamber had to make cuts on the expense side of their ledger because the revenue side had losses due to the lockdown, which removed some of their fundraising opportunities.

“Just like a small business,” said Laurie Kokenes, executive director of the Chamber for the last 27 years, “we had to tighten our belts, put some things on hold and find ways to make up for lost revenue, find ways to survive.”

Christine Barnard, a community outreach consultant employed by the Chamber, explained, “We are self-funded and when COVID hit, we lost 40% of our revenue for 2020, and we are projecting a $26,000 shortfall for 2021. Fortunately, we were able to apply early on for the SBA EIDL loan, but this one-time loan covers just about half of our annual revenue. Like the small businesses the chamber supports, we had to think of creative ways to fund our organization, at the same time that we have been assisting our members to keep their businesses open.”

“A lot of people don’t realize that we are self-funded,” Barnard added. “Many think we are funded by the village of Forest Park.”

Kokenes explained that the budget squeeze revealed how much most of the Chamber members valued the organization.

This summer, the chamber hosted an art walk, allowing artists to display works in storefront windows and visitors to safely enjoy the displays.

“In March 2020,” she said, “we were in the middle of our annual membership renewal process. We put renewals on hold for several months, but members continued to receive benefits because it was the right thing to do. By year-end, most members renewed their membership because they recognized the overall value of the Chamber’s work as well as value of the tangible benefits.”

The Chamber shifted from business as usual to crisis mode.

“When COVID hit,” Kokenes recalled, “we tossed our to-do list and focused our efforts on providing members with key information and one-on-one support; promoting businesses; increasing our engagement and reach through social media; and working with the village to communicate the needs of the business community.”

The Chamber had to resort to digital apps to accomplish work that was done before COVID-19 became part of our vocabulary. Board meetings were held on Zoom. Instead of networking at their monthly luncheon meetings, chamber members had to communicate by email.

Nothing came easy after the governor shut down in-place dining and shopping.

“I don’t remember a time either of us shut down our computers,” said Barnard, “or had a day off.

“I think our business community feels the same way. They put in whatever hours — 60, 70, 80 hours a week — they need to put in to survive.”

Also like many small businesses, the chamber came up with creative ways to survive:

  • Becoming a free-flowing communication conduit to the business community on behalf of the village.
  • Providing information on grants and other financial relief.
  • Raising money to plant spring/summer flowers on Madison Street and Roosevelt Road.
  • Creating new, socially distant events to bring people to Forest Park and increase visibility for businesses — like the Madison Street Art Stroll, Halloween Flower Pots on Parade and Home for the Holidays.
  • Raising and donating $300 to the Forest Park Food Pantry.
  • Greatly increasing social media campaigns like the Shop Small promotion.
  • Helping raise $11,300 in partnership with Energy Tees in the I Love Local T-shirt fundraiser.
The chamber distributed yard signs earlier in the pandemic. | File photo

Looking forward to post-COVID

How about St. Patrick’s Day on Sept. 18?

Kokenes said the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, usually in March, is very popular with residents. Since it couldn’t be held this March, Kokenes said they decided to be creative and have it at the halfway point in the year.

If we get back to normal in terms of the pandemic, the Chamber will hold the fall favorites like the Casket Races, Trick or Treat on Madison, the Flower Pots on Parade in October, the Fall Wine Walk in November and the Holiday Walk on Dec. 3.

“Currently,” Kokenes concluded, “we are in the process of re-imagining some of our other regular events and researching some new ones like a potential restaurant week and a streetwide Sidewalk Days.”