Office of Public Affairs

USM partners with community to help small businesses navigate COVID-19

The University of Southern Maine is working to support community efforts to help small business owners navigate many of COVID-19’s challenges — from advising small business owners on how to apply for aid money to helping them navigate today’s quickly changing rules and regulations.

And the help is free.

Finding the aid is as simple as entering an email address on the website for the Maine Small Business Development Centers, headquartered on USM’s Portland campus. From there, a growing number of resources — including one-on-one advising and specialized regulatory aid — are available.

“There are a lot of ways to empower people,” said Ross Hickey, USM’s Assistant Provost for Research Integrity and the director of the Maine Regulatory Training and Ethics Center. “The regulatory process is not intuitive. A lot of people who have not filled out a federal form are now having to do it.”

Hickey, a lawyer, is working with business owners to help them adapt to the unique times.

“Because of the reality of COVID-19, you have people that are doing their work in a different way, and the system was not set up for that,” he said.

Ross Hickey, USM’s Assistant Provost for Research Integrity and the director of the Maine Regulatory Training and Ethics Center, is helping business people understand COVID-19's new rules.  (Marc Glass/USM Public Affairs.)

The work is expanding on a USM collaboration with the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Portland Council of Governments, the Maine Small Business Development Centers, the Maine Economic Improvement Fund, the University of Maine School of Law and others.

Together, they have formed the Small Business Recovery & Relaunch Initiative, with the Maine Small Business Development Centers serving as the hub. In 1977, the university was among eight pilot sites funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration to test the concept of leveraging federal, state and higher education resources to assist entrepreneurs and spur economic growth. USM administers the Maine SBDC program through the College of Management and Human Service. A cooperative agreement with Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development enables the state to match the program’s federal funding. The centers have offered free business assistance for 43 years. 

Traditionally, the Portland office and its 21 satellites across Maine receive about 1,500 requests for advising each year. This year — during the months of March and April — the centers received about 2,000 requests, said Mark Delisle, the state director.

“Our volume exploded over those two months,“ Delisle said.

Many people wanted information about new grants and paycheck protection loans from the U.S. Small Business Association. Business owners wanted help finding ways to survive and keep people employed. It’s assistance that Delisle’s staff, all working remotely from their homes, managed to supply by putting in extra hours and days. Delisle’s staff has also recorded weekly webinars tackling issues such as crisis marketing, preparing businesses to reopen and finding relief in the fishing and blueberry industries.

The federal CARES Act has brought $1.28 million to the Maine centers. The money is paying for expanding the staff to meet the increased demand.

Andrew Kaufman, a professor of Practice and the director of the Compliance Program at the University of Maine School of Law, is working to help business with COVID-19 regulations. (Marc Glass/USM Public Affairs.)

Meanwhile, Hickey and Andrew Kaufman, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law, are working with student interns to take on some of the regulatory questions that have risen amid the quickly changing crisis.

The rules of business — at the federal, state and local level — weren’t written with pandemics in mind, Hickey said.

For instance, many Maine stores have locked their doors and established curbside pick-up procedures in order to continue operating. What are the new rules? Also, changes in businesses sometimes require planning boards to meet or public comment periods and hearings. How do those happen during a time of social distancing? Some business owners are dealing with new tax and insurance questions. Their respective agencies are working hard to establish procedures, but some situations are unanticipated and the right course can be difficult to decipher, Hickey said.

“These are really immediate questions,” said Hickey, who said that they are not giving legal advice or opinions. He, Kaufman and two legal interns are marshaling their experiences as researchers and their growing knowledge of the rules around COVID-19 to help people. Their  interns are being funded by an $18,000 grant from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund.

“How can you get clarity in real time so that people can do the right thing?” asked Hickey.  “That’s where there’s going to be an absolute need.”

Chris Hall agrees.

“If you are a business person, you really want to work, but you might not speak the language of regulation,” said Hall, the general counsel and director of regional initiatives for the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

He said he will be sending people to the Delisle’s hub and he praised the work of Hickey and others.

“It’s a wonderful resource to have access to,” Hall said. “That’s the social dividend we get for having the educational institution here.”

Story by Daniel Hartill/USM Public Affairs