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Ames Chamber report highlights programs that helped local businesses and workers in 2020, lowest unemployment rate in US

Ronna Faaborg
Ames Tribune

The Ames Chamber’s 2020 annual report, released this week, highlights some of the ways Story County workers and businesses have been affected by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Ames’ unemployment rate, which was at 2% in November, marked the lowest rate of all metropolitan areas in the United States at that time, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“At our high point, we were just over 9% in the late spring, early summer,” said Dan Culhane, president and CEO of the Ames Chamber of Commerce. “But that didn’t last. We’re back down to the lowest unemployment rate for a metropolitan statistical area in the country.”

Culhane acknowledged that the attractive statistic doesn’t mean there aren’t “people who are unemployed or underemployed in our marketplace, but we are in a far better place than we were on the first of June, 2020.”

Other Iowa metro areas also fare well on the Labor Department’s unemployment rate list: Iowa City is sixth at 2.8%, Sioux City is eighth at 2.9%, Des Moines/West Des Moines is 15th at 3.2%, Dubuque and Cedar Falls/Waterloo are tied at No. 18 at 3.3%.

Ames has the lowest unemployment rate among U.S. metro areas at 2%, according to Dept. of Labor's data. The Ames Chamber of Commerce recently released its 2020 annual report, which offers some insight into why that rate is so low compared to other cities.

The Chamber report also highlighted programs that helped Ames and Story County businesses through the challenges of the pandemic, such as the Iowa Small Business Relief Fund, which put over $2.3 million back into Story County businesses, according to the report.

Bars and taverns were helped by the Business Disruption Relief Fund to the tune of almost $600,000.

“That didn’t solve anybody’s problems, but those dollars were helpful,” Culhane said.

The Chamber also advocated strongly for the Iowa Movie Theater Relief Program, he said, which provided local theaters with $10,000 per screen.

In partnership with United Way of Story County, the Ames Chamber’s Story County Innovation Project helped people get trained in one of three programs: welding, manufacturing and certified nursing assistants.

“With a $100,000 grant, we had 28 people graduate from that program who were either underemployed or unemployed,” Culhane said. “That was really, really significant — that people were able to start on bigger and better opportunities as a result of being involved in that program.”

The Story County Innovation Project is an extension of Des Moines Area Community College’s SCALE program. It was developed to recruit underrepresented adults and reduce barriers for training beyond high school, according to the annual report.

“We’ll continue to find ways to foster that program going forward because it was highly impactful,” Culhane said.

The “Buy-In Ames and Story County” campaign was another important highlight for the Chamber in 2020, he said.

“While I don’t think that it saved anyone from going out of business,” Culhane said, but it was helpful to those who received support.

The campaign created enthusiasm in the community to buy gift cards from some of Ames and Story County’s most vulnerable businesses. Not only did the gift card campaign inject money into the local economy, but Culhane said it was also important for the morale of the community.

“It was fun for our team,” he said. “But I think it was also fun for people to buy those cards. They got a little bit of a deal, and on the flip side, those dollars went back into our businesses.”

The Chamber had 30 sponsors who helped underwrite the gift card campaign, which resulted in $138,000 going back into area businesses.

In 2021, the Chamber aims to redirect programming to better serve minority-owned businesses locally, according to the report, which states that "critical monthly conversations with minority business owners" began and 82 businesses have self-reported to be added to the chamber's minority-owned business directory. The directory can be found on the Chamber website

Culhane admits there were many challenges for the Ames Chamber over the past year as the staff there adjusted during the pandemic. Communication was one of the biggest challenges.

“I think a setback for us as an organization was that we couldn’t do events that we’re good at and that people help us bring people together,” Culhane said.

But, he thinks the challenge made the Ames Chamber a better organization.

“We’re a better service provider to our investors and our members than we were two years ago, and it’s because of COVID,” Culhane said. “We’re deliberate and intentional in the ways we communicate and work to be helpful to our business community.”