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ASU's Peoria Forward steps up to help small businesses during crisis

Entrepreneurial development program pivots to immediate needs from COVID-19 shutdown

April 03, 2020

An entrepreneurship initiative at Arizona State University was able to quickly jump into action recently to help small-business owners whose livelihoods were threatened by the COVID-19 crisis.

Peoria Forward is a 2-year-old partnership between the city of Peoria and Entrepreneurship and Innovation at ASU. The initiative started with a needs assessment, and then ramped up to create dozens of community events, trainings and a strategy to build the West Valley’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, according to Kristin Slice, program manager for Peoria Forward.

But when the pandemic scaled up a few weeks ago, the program shifted into emergency mode.

“We’ve really beat the drum about the importance of small businesses because they really create a sense of place, so the city had a heightened awareness that this would be a critical portion of their response,” Slice said.

“How can they support entrepreneurs to make sure they get out on the other side of this?”

So a task force was created with Peoria Forward, several city departments and community organizations. They met every day to think of small things they could do that would have big impact, and they surveyed business owners about what they needed.

“And that’s how the banners became the first thing,” she said. “It was an immediate need.”  

outside of small business

ASU's Peoria Forward team is part of a task force that distributed 200 banners to independent restaurants that are trying to survive the pandemic shutdown. Photo contributed by Kristin Slice/ASU Entrepreneurship and Innovation

Members of the task force and volunteers passed out 200 banners to restaurants in Peoria in late March, advertising that they offered pickup or delivery to customers during the shutdown. The banners were important because many restaurants are located in small shopping centers or strip malls with other storefronts that are closed, so foot traffic is low. The banners say, “Open during COVID-19.”

Slice helped deliver the banners to the restaurants, maintaining safe distances.

“There’s something to be said about when people know you’re willing to show up and do the hard work,” she said.

“That’s been our mantra from the get-go — doing the hard work side by side.”

The team also found 2,000 goody bags filled with candy and swag that were left over when a big event was canceled. The volunteers gave out the goody bags to the restaurants to pass on to their customers as a “thank you” gift.

Amber Costa is the economic development agreement coordinator for the Economic Development Services Department of the city of Peoria.

“For Peoria, our mom-and-pops and small retailers are our bread and butter, and the mayor is very pro-business, so it’s very important that we react as fast as we can,” she said.

“We were able to get an assessment of who was hardest hit, and it was a list of family-owned businesses that had been in business 20 or 30 years and their sales just dropped immediately.”

Costa said that businesses have been in “a tailspin.”

“But ASU has been phenomenal and has pivoted so quickly to the current needs of what’s going on,” she said.

Slice said the Peoria Forward program still is working with the entrepreneurs.

“We’ve pivoted our focus to educational outreach,” she said. “For example, two businesses wanted to do a Facebook Live but didn’t know how, so we connected them on that.”

They’re also working with Peoria’s Small Business Development Center to answer questions and help entrepreneurs file for loans.

She said that the quick action has resembled a business startup.

“A lot of it is the entrepreneurial mindset that ASU is known for and what we teach our community members in practice,” she said.

“Basically we’re running our own little venture in this task force.”

Top image: Elizabeth Deitchman (left), community builder for Peoria Forward of ASU Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and Amber Costa, economic development agreement coordinator for the city of Peoria, deliver banners and goody bags to restaurants that are trying to weather the pandemic. Photo contributed by Kristin Slice, program manager for Peoria Forward.

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