April 23, 2020|By Eric Wuestewald| Community Development

Essential Advice for Gateway and Rural Communities During the Coronavirus Pandemic

In early April, The Conservation Fund held a webinar to gather ideas and share suggestions for how rural and gateway communities can respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic. The webinar brought together speakers Kennedy Smith of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Ilana Preuss from Recast City, LLC, Axie Navas from the New Mexico Economic Development Department, and Katie Allen and Kendra Briechle of The Conservation Fund with 300 people from around the country living and working in rural and gateway communities.  

From monetary relief to managing recovery, the following summarizes the most urgent and pertinent questions and suggestions from the webinar: 

1) How can small businesses get money? 
Franklin PA Main St

Photo by Sam Levitan


U.S. unemployment figures have hit 22 million in recent days. Many businesses and small communities are struggling to survive. Non-essential businesses such as dine-in restaurants, lodging, recreation services and more have closed or been forced to find creative ways to stay open and maintain business operations. This isn’t just an economic loss, but a cultural one as well as downtowns across the country are losing their vibrancy and their unique sense of place. 

For many gateway communities, the most important question is financial eligibility. What money is out there? Who can get federal grants and loans?  

In many cases, look first to your local government’s economic development department and see if they can direct you to programs and further guidance on reaching federal programs. The USDA COVID Federal Rural Resource Guide provides technical, financial, and state and local assistance. 

Also target resources specific to your community role. If you’re a sole-proprietor or entrepreneur, search for small business resources. Nonprofit organizations are posting resources and lists of multi-state programs. Artisans can seek funding or connections through agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts, national programs such as support for filmmakers via American Documentary’s COVID-19 Artist Emergency Fund, or local resources. For example, public radio stations are posting resources like WBUR-Radio Boston’s list of Grants and Resources for Artists and Nonprofits, which are applicable on a national scale. 

Travel and tourism organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce, your local Chamber or your state tourism office can offer relief for the hotel tax-funded tourism entities and destination development organizations that make revenue on meetings, lodging and other visitor spending. Additional relief funds may come from corporations and private entities. Forbes has also put together a list of small business loans and grants. 

Updates are happening all the time. Check back frequently on the issues and geographies relevant to you. 

2) How can small businesses adapt? 

Photo by Sam Levitan


Most importantly: take the virus seriously. It largely spreads through human interaction, so work to mitigate that. If you’re physically open, make entrances and exits clear. Limit the number of customers in your store at a time. Help people maintain six feet of distance. Mandate that people wear face coverings. This is safer for you, your customers, and your community. By diligently limiting the spread of the virus, you can help other businesses open and the economy recover sooner. 

Your business still exists, but it needs to find new ways to reach people. One solution: maintain in-person interactions online. You can create newsletters and mailing lists or expand your social media presence. Consider virtual tours of museums and public spaces or gift cards. Help keep your community’s morale up and inspire future visits.  

During this slowdown, you may also need to develop new businesses or revenue streams. Many businesses have switched to telephone orders and curbside pickups. Farmers’ markets have become drive-thrus. Stores that offer physical goods such as food, books, or toys can offer contactless deliveries. Fitness studios can host their classes online. Restaurants can host cooking classes online or convert to temporary general stores. Some places have even installed vending machines.  

Another direction for manufacturing may be to shift your product entirely to focus on the pandemic. Distilleries across the country have begun using their alcohol to create hand sanitizer. Clothing manufacturers have started making face masks. Larger scale manufacturers can help with ventilators and PPE. Be creative.  

3. How can we manage recovery? 

Chelsea MI MainStreet Photo by Istockphotos


According to the National Park Service, the 16-day government shutdown in 2013 resulted in a loss of $7.88 million and $414 million in visitor spending in gateway communities. This pandemic may have a rippling effect that we have never seen before. US Travel is estimating a $500 billion loss to the travel industry in 2020. 

Communities should be using resources now to understand the potential impacts and inform recovery planning. The pandemic is offering opportunities to intentionally build asset-based economic development into that planning. Georgia is using an event impact calculator to estimate loss of all planned events to inform recovery (see Destinations International). Now is the time to account for the true value of public lands and the businesses that rely on them in future planning. 

4) What does this tell us about outdoor space and recreation? 
Aspen CO Four Pass Backpacking 1 c Stacy Funderburke

Photo by Stacy Funderburke


For now: many public spaces remain open. People are flocking to these green spaces as a respite from the pandemic and being trapped in their homes. This reaffirms both the necessity of protecting America’s public lands and the vital role of gateway communities. However, many of these spaces are also being overrun by visitors, making safe enjoyment of the outdoors impossible. Our advice: do your part and stay home.   

If you must get out, try to stick to your neighborhood. If you want to visit a park, know that most park and visitor facilities are closed. Many are feeling the pressure to limit access to further support social distancing and keep both you and their staff healthy. If you go and find your park open, be sure to follow all directions by land managers and signage. In every situation, maintain your distance and follow precautions and government regulations to stay safe and healthy.  

When the pandemic passes, remember what the outdoors meant to you in this time. It’s easy to forget in the day-to-day shuffle of life, but our scenic lands and cultural resources offer space for reflection and chances to breathe. They allow us to think about our place in the world, see beauty up close, and find relaxation. When this is finally over, and if you’re financially able, help us fight to protect these spaces for all people for all generations. Nature is essential. 

For more suggestions and a full list of resources, please check out the full webinar here.  

If you’ve been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, please fill out our survey here. 

Written By

Eric Wuestewald

At the time of publication, Eric Wuestewald was the Digital Content Marketing Manager for The Conservation Fund.