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“Think Local” banners on an array of activities adorn the light posts throughout downtown Walla Walla. The banners are part of a broader initiative to promote economic restoration. Business leaders say support from consumers making an intentional effort to shop locally will be vital to economic sustainability.

On the brink of a potentially disastrous winter for small businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic, an online panel Thursday hosted by Baker Boyer Bank targeted economic survival.

The panel explored the impact of COVID-19 on local businesses, how some have survived, and what the near future looks like for the local economy.

Shopping locally has been an oft-repeated encouragement during the coronavirus pandemic, and Downtown Walla Walla Foundation Executive Director Kathryn Witherington said it will be vital — even with small purchases.

“Local spending is what is going to get us out of this recession,” Witherington said. “Just $10. If everyone watching this just spends $10, that would mean so much to local businesses. Ten dollars is nothing to Amazon.”

Retail stores and restaurants are in the same boat, Witherington said.

Summer enabled several of them to “weather the storm,” even though tourism was “nowhere near what we’ve been used to.”

However, summer was preceded by a statewide quarantine.

“They had already missed out on about three months of recovery from last winter,” Witherington said. “There’s still a long way to go.”

Witherington called local spending the “silver bullet” to slay a recession that has already seen seven downtown operations go out of business since March. Those include Macy’s, Lash Loft, Whitehouse-Crawford, LeFore’s Spa, Emberfuel Coworking, Uniquely Walla Walla and the just announced Marla June’s.

More are likely unless trends change, she said.

Help could come in a variety of ways, according to Witherington, including tax relief, loans, grants, and business innovations, but those only provide temporary relief.

“We’re staring down a dark, cold winter,” Witherington said. “Five thousand dollars is the difference between surviving and not surviving for a lot of the small businesses here.”

While Witherington spoke on behalf of local retail and restaurants, Erik McLaughlin, CEO of Walla Walla-based winery and hospitality advisory firm Metis LLC addressed challenges in the wine industry.

The coronavirus has forced adjustments throughout the wine industry.

With access to tasting rooms limited by restrictions, loyal customers found an avenue for their purchases through wine clubs and online orders.

“As the summer wore on, club sales were up enough to offset tasting room losses,” McLaughlin said. “Not at all places, but some.”

The more successful businesses used social media to create strong bonds with their club members.

“We need to encourage places to be highly engaging with their customers, really get to know them,” McLaughlin said. “The better part of promoting is what we hear. Listen. It’s not enough to get people to want to buy your wine. Learn what they want.”

Business is likely to drop over the winter, but McLaughlin shared an optimistic long-term outlook.

Wineries will see a resurgence once travel restrictions are lifted.

“Consumption has not slackened,” McLaughlin said. “The Washington wine industry is highly reliant on tourism, so the decline has less to do with people drinking less, and more to do with people traveling less.”

Joe Burlingame, a senior business advisor at Baker Boyer, closed the discussion by urging local business owners to “be resilient. If you’re able to adapt, you’ll be able to succeed.”

Regional Business Banking Manager Mario Delgadillo stressed organization.

“Keeping your finances in order is really important,” he said.

Hector del Castillo can be reached at hectordelcastillo@wwub.com or 509-526-8317.

Hector writes stories about local sports, helps produce the daily section and updates the web site. A lifelong sports nut having grown up in Maryland, he joined the U-B with more than 15 years experience in journalism.