The Economic Development team, from left to right: Economic Development Director Dan Stevenson, Economic Development Specialist Nancy Litrocapes, Deputy Director of Economic Development Ashley Rand and TV station coordinator and media specialist Barry Dodd. Chance Viles / American Journal

WESTBROOK — Westbrook’s Business Retention and Expansion Program will be the first of the kind in the state, according to the city’s economic development team, and will help Westbrook understand the unique needs of each of the city’s industries.

The program, which kicked off this week, will be a game-changer, said Economic Development Coordinator Dan Stevenson, who has been working on the program since 2017.

The program is a combination of business visits, surveys, data collection and general communication between the city and businesses. The economic development team can then take hard data and look at real ways to help businesses. The first project is creating data as to how businesses have been affected by the pandemic, which the city will supply to the CDC.

“The purpose … is to connect to the business community and look at their needs by each industry sector,” Stevenson said. “That allows us quick and appropriate response ranging from working on policy changes to helping them access capital.”

As an example, Stevenson looked at the life science businesses in the city, including IDEXX and Abbot Labs, among others.

“With this, we may find they use the same companies in their supply chain and from there with this we can work on bringing that part of their supply chain right into the city and cutting down shipping costs,” Stevenson said.

Data and surveys from the program can help secure grant money.

“With our survey, say for COVID-19, we aren’t just looking at PPE. Businesses may have spent serious money on making their restaurant able to serve indoors, so we can take that and help them secure funding,” Stevenson said.

While the program is new, and most businesses the American Journal asked weren’t familiar with it outright, they say the benefits of the program would be a great help.

“We’ve spent probably $20,000 on making our restaurant work during the pandemic with outdoor seats and improvements, but we haven’t looked at grants,” said Istanbul Bakery co-owner Sarem Al-Shawk.

“These were changes we had to make because of COVID-19,” co-owner Samer Abbasi said.

Samer Abbasi, Istanbul Restaurant and Bakery co-owner, said the business has taken on extra spending since the pandemic, on top of falling business. The restaurant has since expanded to include outdoor seating, as well as converting their indoor area to a grocery store. Chance Viles / American Journal

With the responses to the surveys, the city can give that data back to the businesses or approach the state, for example, to lobby for aid or policy changes that would impact city businesses.

With COVID-19 and the CDC, Stevenson hopes this hard data will open CDC funding and programs to private businesses, or at least better understand the impacts certain restrictions may have on businesses of different types and sizes.

“That is something I don’t think the CDC has ever thought of, but if we can show them real ways the pandemic has affected us, it could be huge,” Stevenson said.

The city then will know what they can do to help and avoid wasting time and resources on useless programs, Stevenson said, as well as open up conversations statewide about what can be done to help – not just with COVID-19, but with any given issue.

“Understanding needs explicitly and helping find real solutions is what this program is about,” Stevenson said.

“The way the city has gone about things this year, especially in looking at helping our business as well as those, in terms of keeping their doors open, it will be really beneficial to a lot of people,” Frog and Turtle Co-owner Guy Cote said.

According to Deputy Director of Economic Development Ashley Rand, about 800 businesses in the city are signed up for emails and communications from the department for the program, with more being added each week.

Frog & Turtle co-owner Guy Cote said he appreciates the consistent work the city has done to help businesses during the pandemic, from the new Business Retention and Expansion Program that will benefit businesses beyond the pandemic, to the opening of Vallee Square as outdoor seating. Chance Viles / American Journal

The business database was built by the team over the past few months, either making calls or going door to door.

“Our first survey that is out is about how COVID-19 has impacted your business, which can be found on our website. That information we will then present to the CDC,” Rand said.

The Economic Development team understands that businesses are wary of surveys and visits, but the difference with their program is it’s brevity and strategy, according to Rand.

Surveys that are sent out only take a few minutes to finish and have specific questions focused on an issue. Older visitation and business programs he had to use in the past, Stevenson said, used inches-thick binders and businesses would hardly do them.

“They would ask questions that had nothing to do with the business, and business owners felt the surveys weren’t for them or wouldn’t end up helping,” Stevenson said.

To get your business in the database or for more information, visit the Economic Development page at westbrookmaine.com.

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