Lebanon County has never encountered anything like the COVID-19 crisis, economically or otherwise. But in response, communities across the locale have never come together in a spirit of cooperation like this before.
Forward. Together. Lebanon. Three powerful words, each in their own unique right. But all more powerful together.
Forward Together Lebanon is a new and unprecedented community initiative spearheaded by the Lebanon County Recovery Task Force, one of the most extensive collections of community leaders ever to be assembled for one common purpose: to lessen the effects of the coronavirus. The mission is to support, educate, and inform those most affected by the economic impact of the pandemic.
Forward Together Lebanon provides help for those seeking to help themselves.
“The collaboration is critical,” said Karen Groh, president and CEO of the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce. “Everybody brings to the table their own specific talents and knowledge. It’s having experts, each in their own industries, highlighting what they know with other team leaders, so there’s no overlap. It’s important to be able to bounce ideas off each other. Working as a collective team really does make a difference.”
“The collaborative effort is one of the most positive aspects of the initiative,” said Susan Eberly, the president of the Lebanon Valley Economic Development Corporation. “Collaboration is the key to success. The team brings a wealth of knowledge, expertise and resources to the table. Forward Together Lebanon is a team approach to economic recovery. As the team moves Lebanon forward, it is a sign of unity that we are working together.”
Eberly and Groh are just two of the eight faces heading up the initiative. Forward Together Lebanon also features Robert Dowd of the Lebanon County Department of Emergency Services, Brooke Smith of United Way of Lebanon County, Jennifer Easter of WellSpan Health, ELCO school district superintendent Julia Vicente, Geoffrey Roche of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, and Barbara Kauffman of Kauffman Creative Services.
Each representative heads a team of community leaders in their respective fields.
“A unified approach was needed to address the needs of our community,” said Eberly. “Many community leaders came together in April to start exploring and examining ways they could work together for the greater good of the County. Part of the concept is to be a lighthouse to the community. As our light projects outward, we can be a beacon to those looking for assistance and hope.”
“You’ve got team leaders who have been at the forefront, but they’re very busy people,” said Groh. “We came together as team leaders once a week for probably a month. But each team has been having meetings as well. At the moment, we’re still trying to figure out what the true goal of this economic plan is. You can’t fix everything. We don’t have the resources or the time, so you’ve got to find priorities.
“We’re trying to find out where the gaps are, so we know where to put our energy and time.”
Lebanon County began feeling the economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis in mid-March, almost immediately after Gov. Tom Wolf’s mitigation efforts were put into place. Residents were laid off or furloughed, businesses saw income reduced by up to 75 percent, and consumers began to question their public safety.
The Lebanon County Recovery Task Force came together quickly, and began meeting virtually while the state was in the red phase of recovery.
“This is my take on the impact: I feel like the majority of our county has fared OK,” said Groh. “Around 70 percent of the businesses have been open. I don’t think it’s a full 30 percent who are in dire straits. There are definitely a percentage of our businesses that are going to suffer moving forward. The restaurants and hospitality industry are huge, they’ve really struggled. There are some businesses still closed down completely.”
“The closure of non-essential business was extremely hard on the community,” said Eberly. “The loss of income to businesses has been devastating. Many families are struggling with the loss of employment. Consumer spending is down. The bright side to this is that the injection of funding dollars through the PPP ( Paycheck Protection Program) and EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) programs, as well as the stimulus checks, have played a key role in keeping the county at a better spot.”
One of Forward Together Lebanon’s first actions was to launch a user-friendly website. In addition to serving as the initiative’s centerpiece, it has provided a jumping off point for local residents in need of assistance and as a way to connect with the mission.
Visitors to the website can discover resources in the areas of public mitigation, community resources, business resources, finances, job training, employment and education.
According to Eberly, the current unemployment rate in Lebanon County is around 14.8 percent.
“The website has a few roles,” said Eberly. “One is to be a guide and an access point to local resources. The website allows others to find many resources at a central location. Another is to show the unified approach that will give businesses and people confidence that there are resources and assistance available.”
“The website is a communication tool,” said Groh. “It’s a central location to discover what the recovery plan has to offer. Some of those resources were already in place. But we can drive people to other places with other information.”
Lebanon County’s economic recovery seems directly linked to the public’s perception of safety and consumer confidence. In light of recent developments, the Lebanon community may not be as far along as it once hoped it might be.
Moving from Wolf’s yellow phase to green would be the next step in what could be a long process.
“The predictions are that we are not out of the woods yet,” said Eberly. “We are learning to live with and deal with the impacts. We have a strong community filled with creative thinkers who are willing to jump in and find solutions. We have great medical facilities that we can be proud of, that have worked tirelessly to address the public health issues. We have a great county EMS department that takes its role as public mitigation and safety seriously. There has been an uptick due to nursing home COVID-19 cases. As we prepare to move the county to green, time will tell how it affects the number of positive cases.”
“That’s up to public relations in the area, the news sources, and how businesses convey their messages,” said Groh of the public’s confidence. “We’re doing everything to keep you safe. You want to show your customers that they’re safe. There’s no guarantee with it. It’s not like there’s a guidebook on it. We all have to take a leap of faith to a degree.”
For its part, Forward Together Lebanon’s mission includes controlling the things it can control, and understanding what it can’t. Exactly what the future will look like will also depend on patience and perception.
“How do you define ‘economic recovery?’” asked Groh. “‘Economic recovery’ needs a definition. COVID-19 opened our eyes to how we can work a little more creatively. I would think full economic recovery is going to take at least a year, but it’s going to come in stages. I don’t know if some businesses are ever going to recoup what they lost. But I don’t think Lebanon County was hit as hard as some other areas in Pennsylvania.”
“That is a hard question, as there are many variables that come into play,” said Eberly. “One thing for certain is that the longer that it takes for the county to move out of yellow, the longer it will take to recover. Consumer confidence must increase, COVID cases must lessen and life must return to a somewhat normal condition.”
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