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Rural businesses ‘think outside the box’

Rural businesses ‘think outside the box’

Versailles Missouri street scene

Dina Dunklee, executive director of the Versailles Chamber of Commerce, says local businesses had to get creative but were able to have a successful 2020 despite the challenges.

VERSAILLES, Mo. — On a sunny February day in Morgan County, the square in Versailles was a busy place, with vehicles slowly driving by the old courthouse, local restaurants doing lunchtime business, and a short line waiting, socially distanced, on the sidewalk outside the license office.

Dina Dunklee, executive director of the Versailles Chamber of Commerce, says the coronavirus pandemic provided challenges for the community and its businesses, but they were able to make some adjustments to find success.

“We didn’t lose one business,” she says. “If anything, the businesses thrived.”

Dunklee says some businesses saw revenues go up in 2020, which she attributes to getting creative as well as more people shopping local when travel was lessened during the pandemic. She says local restaurants went with curbside service and kept advertising, featuring their to-go food options.

The “shop local” effort was practical during the coronavirus outbreak, but it was also a lesson for consumers about supporting community businesses, Dunklee says.

“You don’t have to travel,” she says. “If you need anything, we have it in our hometown.”

Of course, the community felt some impacts, and Dunklee says the chamber had to make the difficult decision last year to cancel the popular Apple Festival, which she says typically brings 20,000 to 30,000 people to town.

Dunklee advocates for local businesses on community Facebook pages. She says they play a key role for the local economy, even as many people look to national online retailers.

“Amazon is great — trust me, we use it — but we’ve got to support our local businesses,” she says.

In addition to local support, Dunklee says good internet access is key for rural small businesses, as well as rural schools and communities in general. She says Versailles is fortunate to have good high-speed internet available.

“Just having the high-speed internet helps,” she says. “We’ve had people moving into this area because we do have the high-speed internet.”

The state of Missouri has been working to increase high-speed internet access in rural areas, creating the Office of Rural Broadband, providing funding for it, and working to secure federal grants to expand rural broadband in areas of the state that lack good internet access.

Davin Althoff, who works as the director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture’s ag business development division, says it is critical for rural Missouri.

“I believe the greatest challenge we have for rural Missouri is connectivity,” he says. “They have not had the opportunities to connect to high-speed internet at an affordable rate.”

Althoff says rural broadband “is a passion and a priority” for Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn and Gov. Mike Parson, both of whom live in rural areas when they are not in Jefferson City. He says the state has seen a mixture of allocating state funds, including from emergency funding sources, and securing grants and federal money to continue to improve internet access in the state.

Rural internet access remains an ongoing issue for Missouri as communities climb out of the pandemic. But Dunklee says the local small businesses continue to be resilient.

“They had to be creative,” she says. “They had to think outside the box.”

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Ben Herrold is Missouri field editor, writing for Missouri Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.

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