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Kristin Urbach, executive director of the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce, is pictured in her office.

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — It’s no secret that the past year has not been a kind one to small businesses, with the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shutdowns, restrictions and limits leaving many scrambling to survive, something which many businesses sadly have not.

In such trying times, it’s good to have an ally to help navigate the troubled waters, and that’s exactly what the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce and Executive Director Kristin Urbach have sought to be to the business community of North Kingstown, through applying for and receiving several grants to adapt to new challenges and keep places in business, as well as turning to virtual meeting spaces to allow for business owners and leaders to network with each other while still practicing social distancing.

“It’s been an honor for me to lead the Chamber and to seek and obtain these grant opportunities so that we can boost our offerings at a higher level,” Urbach said.

Chiefly among those grants is the Business Technical Assistance Grant, which the Chamber was awarded by Commerce RI back in October.

“Basically this grant is helping support small businesses (to) navigate their technology so that they can become more efficient and effective in their operations,” Urbach said.

Through the grant, the NK Chamber has partnered with Pawtucket-based tech consultant firm Envision Technology Advisors to offer three one hour individual IT consulting sessions completely free to businesses who sign up on the NK Chamber’s website, northkingstown.com, on 10 different topics including eCommerce, data analytics, working from home and more.

“The eCommerce ones are really popular,” Urbach said. “A lot of (participating businesses) are developing eCommerce sites so they have a lot of questions about that. A lot of them have questions about how some of (their) staff is working from home now and what’s my recommendation for setting that up.”

Additionally, they also hold weekly virtual IT roundtables where business leaders can come and speak with other business owners and IT professionals to ask tech questions and share what works best between each, something Urbach says has proved both popular and useful.

“One woman was a landscape designer who was on the call and she started asking questions about how she wanted to add products in an eCommerce site and if anyone else had done it and what are their suggestions and the IT folks from Envision Technology Advisors said ‘oh this is how you do it and this is what we recommend you do’ and it was just fantastic, so they’re the kind of discussions where anyone can pose a question and typically there’s similar themes of other people having those questions as well,” Urbach said.

The loan also offers the Chamber the ability to help businesses apply for grants.

“Right now, it’s for federal grants, so people who are needing assistance in how to apply for PPP loans or an EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) grant, we can assist them with that,” Urbach said. “An example of that too is we connected more than 10 businesses with banks to receive PPP loans, so there were more than a dozen businesses last year who applied for the first round of PPP whose current bank wasn’t able to offer them a loan, so we connected them with banks that could offer them a loan and they received them. We also assisted two businesses in applying for a business adaptation grant last fall and they were awarded those grants, which is fantastic.”

The grant was initially meant to expire in December, but has since been extended to March 31 and the Chamber will continue to offer these IT services through then, and Urbach hopes more businesses will take advantage of the opportunity.

“We want more people to take advantage of it because it’s a limited time until March 31, so we want to boost the numbers,” Urbach said. “We want more businesses to receive this free service because it will really help their operation.”

Alongside the Business Technical Assistance Grant, Urbach says the Chamber launched a video series called “Live Local” that spotlights local businesses.

“We featured 10 businesses last fall with stories of how they pivoted during COVID and to encourage people to shop local, and we’re actually producing 10 additional videos that we’ll be rolling out in March,” Urbach said.

The Chamber also received a Take It Outside Grant worth $138,000 in conjunction with the Town of North Kingstown to provide local businesses, especially restaurants, with furnishing and equipment to move much of their work outside to better comply with social distancing and keep patrons and employees safe while still attracting business.

“We were able to serve through that grant as an intermediary to purchase eligible items for dozens of businesses in town to operate outside,” Urbach said. “If you look at new tables and chairs outside and tents and awnings and heat lamps throughout town, that’s all from the Chamber’s grant that we received.”

As for the Chamber themselves, the pandemic has put a limit on the events they can hold, as large networking gatherings and galas have proven impossible with social distancing, leading Urbach and the Chamber to take many of their activities online, but with an added twist to make them more entertaining and engaging.

“We pivoted our Business After Hours because it couldn’t be done in person last summer so that they’re online, our Engaging Evenings is what we call them,” Urbach said.

The Engaging Evenings feature talks with guest speakers and partner with local restaurants to offer a $15 meal deal which includes food and two glasses of wine or beers, which attendees are strongly encouraged to purchase and pick up ahead of the meeting. Their more recent Engaging Evening took place Feb. 10 and featured guest speaker and North Kingstown Town Council President Greg Mancini as well as food from Micky’s Pizza in Wickford.

“(The Enchanting Evenings have) gone well,” Urbach said. “We try to keep them lively and interesting by adding that food component where people place the order for the food just before the event and then pick it up and have it during the event, so everybody was having their pizza and talking about what kind of pizza they had the other day from Micky’s on the networking event, so we try to keep it lively because we know some people are tired of Zoom, so that’s why we add guest speakers and why we added that special food event price.”

The next Enchanting Evening is scheduled for March 24 and will see the NK Chamber partner with its Narragansett counterpart and feature Coast Guard House sommelier Elisa Wybraniec as guest speaker to talk about her work as a sommelier in the restaurant industry along with a meal deal from the Cost Guard House.

Overall, Urbach says she’s proud of the work she and her organization have done over the past year.

“It’s been a tremendous honor to be able to provide these opportunities in support of small businesses because it’s obviously a very difficult time with the regulations of how many people can be at businesses or at tables at restaurants and all of that,” Urbach said. “There’s cost implications as well as PPE and things of that nature, so as much as we can defray their costs and provide these services for free, we feel that that’s a great value to the small businesses in really helping them.”

Urbach said the NK Chamber also has their first in-person event in a year set for September as the Taste of the NK Chamber is currently slated to take place then.

“We are gearing up for that as well, which we’re looking forward to,” Urbach said.

For more information on the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce, visit their website, northkingstown.com.

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