If anyone is on the front lines of Main Street’s struggle to survive, it’s Amanda Ballantyne. As the executive director of the Main Street Alliance, she is in charge of giving small businesses a voice in the policy issues that were already important before the pandemic, but have now become lifelines for SMB retailers. It’s a job that puts her squarely between Washington, D.C. and every town in the country, as federal programs have struggled and funds have not found their way to the people who need them.
Since the crisis started, Ballantyne has seen shifts in the more than 30,000 members of the organization. In the beginning, she said, the general outlook was “apocalyptic.” She saw business owners go from thriving to closed, and from fully employed to furloughed. Now, she sees a huge difference between two groups: the SMBs with solid banking relationships and the ones that are still trying to navigate the crisis largely on their own.
“I think for some of the businesses that have started to get some of the federal support, it comes with a lot of problems and challenges, and we actually have some business owners who decided they can't actually use that Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) because it's too much risk,” Ballantyne noted. “And we also have very small businesses in our membership that are owned by people of color, or businesses in low-income areas. The level of desperation is extremely high right now, and they aren't getting the support they need to help them manage the crisis. They aren't necessarily ready to talk about bankruptcy concerns, but I think it's just around the corner for many of them. They’re making a choice about whether they can stay open or not.”
Since 2008, the Alliance has worked in 11 states to build and support a Main Street business network. Through grassroots organizing, one-on-one meetings, local events and government advocacy programs, it gives small businesses a seat at the table, which has been sorely needed as past federal programs have been distributed and new ones legislated.
When PYMNTS spoke to Ballantyne, she had just wrapped a call with California Senator Dianne Feinstein. She has found willingness on both sides of the aisle to provide short-term funding to help Main Street. But a longer-term vision, she said, is lacking.
“And it's those programs that have been executed already that are fraught with a lot of issues,” Ballantyne pointed out. “It’s plain to see that they weren't designed as effectively as they should have been. But I think the longer-term problem is that there hasn’t been a real visionary strategy that puts all the pieces together and looks at a two-year horizon for this crisis. Opening up and just letting people die is not the right answer. We need to put into place longer-term subsidy programs that will make these programs diverse and independent, not hard-to-get loans.”
To help inner-city businesses, which Ballantyne is most concerned about, Main Street Alliance is advocating for programs that are administered by the government, not the private banking system. The main plank in its platform is a small business grant program that will cover the full range of expenses. Other recommendations include technical and financial assistance to help businesses adjust to the pandemic economy and repurpose operations, including helping SMBs move online and investing in financing programs for communities of color.
“Anytime you have a crisis is a time where big structural change can happen out of necessity,” Ballantyne noted. “And very small business owners have had these types of challenges in getting good credit and growing their businesses. I think this is an opportunity to build systems that not only support our economy, but also encourage entrepreneurs.”
Ballantyne explained that she sees two pathways: “One is extreme consolidation and private-equity acquisition of bankrupted businesses and deserts where we had low-income businesses before. The other is a future where we are actually looking at what types of business will support an equitable credit arrangement. Businesses need to grow and thrive. We could come out of this with a much more equitable system of business lending and support that would drive a more independent and competitive economy.”
That’s the long-term vision for the Main Street Alliance. In the meantime, Ballantyne urges small business owners to get on the phone with legislators, be very clear about their needs and explore which specific elements of the programs are working and which are not.
“There's an assumption that because these changes have been made, the problem has been solved,” she said. “But don’t be so sure.”