Mainers, with our icy winters and balding tires, know the feeling all too well. It overtakes you in that long moment, stretched by adrenaline-addled terror, when you realize you’ve lost control: Your vehicle is sliding off the road. Maybe there’s a tree or a telephone pole nearby. Maybe you’ll hit it, maybe not, but there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it now.
That feeling struck me early on a Monday morning in mid-March, when I opened an e-mail from Portland Buy Local. It linked to a letter to Gov. Janet Mills, written on behalf of small-business owners, requesting she “consider” issuing a “proclamation … encouraging lenders to consider loan deferments” or, should the lenders refuse, encouraging them to “consider” making zero-interest loans these moms and pops could use to “help with lease payments.”
To me, the gobsmacking thing about this letter wasn’t the (now obviously woeful) inadequacy of the ask. It was the long list of signatories, page after page: proprietors of the best bars, restaurants, bakeries, breweries, retail shops and service providers in Maine — including well over half of our advertisers.
Well, I thought, that’s the game. There will be no April issue of Mainer. Ain’t a damn thing I can do about it now.
Two weeks later, that free-falling feeling is still kicking in the pit of my stomach, but it’s being smothered by another sensation, a novel amalgam of rage, defiance and hope. Those of you reading this in print right now know which emotion won that wrestling match.
I’m enraged that Maine’s independent entrepreneurs are facing the destruction of their life’s work because the government, led by a blithering idiot, blew one of its primary responsibilities. These businesses were forced to close their doors to protect public health because public officials failed to do so. Ipso fuckin’ facto, the government must pony up the money necessary to ensure these businesses survive and can resume operations at pre-crisis levels as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Mainer stands in solidarity with Portland Buy Local and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), whose co-director, Stacy Mitchell (with whom I served on the board that founded Portland Buy Local), laid out a much stronger set of demands on March 19. They include “rapid-response grants” to cover rent, payroll, health insurance and utilities for the next four months, as well as interest-free loans, fully guaranteed by the federal government, issued without “the current requirement that businesses demonstrate ability to repay the loan,” Mitchell wrote, “which is impossible to prove in today’s uncertainty.”
The “huge” $2 trillion stimulus bill signed shortly before this issue went to press includes funding for Small Business Administration loans, but no direct subsidies or fast-track bailouts like those being handed out to big corporations. And as the ILSR noted in a March 26 press release, the federal funding for Main Street amounts to only about a quarter of the estimated need, chain restaurants and hotels can siphon money from this shallow pool, and the SBA is already buckling under the crush of applications. (One of those hundreds of thousands of applications is ours.)
Frankly, Mainer News Cooperative wasn’t a strong candidate for a big loan before the shit hit the fan (no print journalism outlet is), and I know many of our ad clients weren’t either. Maine experiences a deep recession every year — it’s called winter. Lots of local enterprises, this publication included, have only one or two full-time employees. Some owners have no collateral, high levels of existing debt, crummy credit, or less than a year of operation under their belt.
This is where the defiance kicks in. None of those factors should matter in determining an applicant’s qualification for federal or state assistance, just as they would be moot were one owed an insurance or court settlement due to someone else’s gross negligence. Yet those are the concerns I’m hearing from our clients. And, more troubling, I’m not hearing any assurances from state and federal officials that this loan program won’t amount to a “death panel” for entrepreneurs’ dreams, saving only those deemed worthy by faceless bean-counters.
It’s not only morally imperative to save these enterprises. It makes financial sense, because it would guarantee that laid-off workers can return to their jobs when the smoke clears; that local employers — already desperate for good help before this crisis— can retain the people who know how to do those jobs; and that suppliers will have buyers for their products and services.
Local indie businesses are the connections in a vast web of financial relationships. If you lose those nodes, everything falls apart, and the consequences to the economy become truly dire and long-lasting — surely more costly than the short-term expense of helping them bridge a few rough months.
You also lose the places that make Maine special, the true cost of which is impossible to quantify. So long, foodie tourism, artists, and craft culture. Goodbye, young people and brave immigrants. Hello, Amazon, Olive Garden and Dollar General. Welcome back in spades, opioid crisis and Fireball nips littering the parking lot.
Here’s what this solidarity means in practice. If you’re a small business owner or nonprofit and your government assistance is denied, do not fold without a fight. Tell me, tell other media, post on social media so your customers know what’s going on, and let us raise holy hell on your behalf. We will call and write to public officials — from your city or town councilors and managers to state lawmakers, Gov. Mills, and our Congressional delegation — and demand they step in and make this right. If necessary, we will muster protests (maintaining social distance, of course) at the offices and homes of those officials.
And here’s the hope part. As I write this, the process of getting government aid to Maine’s small businesses has barely begun. It’s possible everyone will get what they need. But if not, the people will rise up and force our elected representatives to muster the money these enterprises require. It is, don’t forget, an election year, and the “how are we gonna pay for it?” excuse has been proven, beyond any doubt, to be bullshit.
To cite just one example, last month the Federal Reserve made it clear to Wall Street that there is no limit to the amount of public money it’s willing to pump into the world of high finance to keep the wheels of commerce turning during the pandemic. Likewise, there can be no limit to the amount of money made available to business owners, nonprofits and workers (as well as non-workers, and undocumented workers, and those laboring “off the books”) to get them through this crisis that the government itself caused.
How can I be so sure the people will rise up in our common defense? Because I’ve been watching Mainers rally to save one another every single day, in myriad different ways. Workers supporting the unemployed, rival businesses boosting one another, the young protecting the old, strangers helping strangers in need. Witness the free yoga classes and concerts and DJ sets and literary readings delivered via Internet stream. Witness the surge of gift-card purchases and take-out orders by those customers who can afford it. Dig the distilleries pumping out hand sanitizer, the seamstresses sewing masks, and the ad hoc mutual-aid organizations sprouting like flowers all over our great state.
I assure you that Mainer will make it through this. Hell, I’ve been scrambling to keep this publication going since it was founded, as The Bollard, 15 years ago. We reached our goal of printing a monthly magazine in the summer of 2008, just as the Great Recession hit. Our editorial contributors and advertisers held us up every time we stumbled, without fail. And these days our structure is stronger than ever. We’re a worker cooperative supported by advertisers and by readers like you (visit patreon.com/mainernews if you’d like to join us).
In this unprecedented time of uncertainty, I know one thing for sure. As individuals competing for crumbs dropped from on high by government and corporations, we will all starve if we don’t die from this virus first. Solidarity is our salvation, and the only path forward to a livable and sustainable world. Mainer is your ally in this fight. We will always have your back. Just say the word.