COVID-19: How PA Wilds Center is Responding
To the many partners involved in the effort to grow nature and heritage tourism in the Pennsylvania Wilds:
COVID-19 continues to upend our lives and businesses and communities. As the coordinating nonprofit for the regional PA Wilds effort, I wanted to share how we are responding internally and with partners to assist our rural communities.
Our employees are at the heart of our organization and we have implemented changes to ensure they are safe and following guidelines to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. As a virtual organization, most Center staff already work from home offices; per federal recommendations, we have eliminated nonessential travel, cancelled all group gatherings of 10 or more, and are practicing physical distancing to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The Center has temporarily closed our PA Wilds Conservation Shop at Kinzua Bridge State Park, and our online store, ShopthePAWilds.com, which ships from our Kinzua Bridge location. Our full-time store employees are being reassigned to other parts of our mission to keep everyone working. To our loyal customers — please take care and we very much look forward to seeing you when this is over.
Our nonprofit commerce platform focuses on selling locally-made and value-added products from our rural region. To the many local companies in our supply chain: our Conservation Shop staff — who find so much purpose in helping rural businesses like yours reach new markets and thrive – will be in touch over the next two weeks with direct calls to increase our understanding of how your companies are being impacted by this pandemic.
Creating contracting opportunities for local companies is part of how the Center makes an impact; we’ve mindfully pushed more than $1M into our rural economy through contracting over the past few years, and watched local companies grow because of it. During this pandemic, we are doing our best to keep all our current projects moving and to pivot where needed to keep our skilled stable of contractors working. We’ve asked all contractors to follow state and federal recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
ASSISTING OUR RURAL BUSINESSES
To the more than 300 businesses and organizations that participate in our rural value chain, the Wilds Cooperative (WCO): we have temporarily suspended our events page on WildsCoPA.org, but we strongly encourage entrepreneurs to keep in touch with us and each other – community is important in a crisis. As we’ve wrestled this week with shuttering parts of our own operations and future uncertainty, it has dawned on me that uncertainty is what we entrepreneurs know best. If anyone is prepared to handle this – it is us. Let’s stick together.
We would like our community of businesses and entrepreneurs to know that an expedited effort is underway in Pennsylvania to assist impacted businesses. Earlier this week, the PA Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) reached out to the local and regional organizations it works with regularly across the state, including ours, to ask for help preparing an expedited Economic Injury Declaration request for the Commonwealth. This is a critical designation that makes federal Coronavirus Disaster Relief Lending available to impacted businesses.
“Companies across PA have been inquiring about these resources and we want to ensure that these Disaster Loans are available across the state,” DCED partners told us. The local and regional economic development organizations serving the Wilds region — who will be carrying a heavy load in the months ahead — swung into action under a short deadline and amid their own organizational upheavals to make sure every county in our region was included in the designation.
“Thank you for your overwhelming response to our call for company impact worksheets,” our partners at DCED told us Tuesday. “As of 9 a.m. today, we had nearly 300 submissions and the entire Commonwealth is expected to qualify. This is not only a testament to your outreach and relationship with businesses across PA, but also the critical need expressed by impacted companies. We have reviewed the data collected with [the Small Business Administration] and forwarded it to PEMA for development of PA’s official request.”
The Center encourages all impacted companies in the PA Wilds to consider Disaster Relief Funding and other similar programs as they become available. We are tracking news on these and will do our best to get information out through the Wilds Cooperative newsletters and platform. Businesses in the PA Wilds can join our network, free of charge, at WildsCoPA.org. Find DCED’s coronavirus updates for the business community here.
INFORMING OUR VISITORS
In the visitor lane of our mission, the Center has posted a message across the homepage of pawilds.com, our regional visitor site, encouraging all travelers to heed state and federal warnings about travel due to the growing health concerns around the coronavirus. We have also temporarily suspended the site’s events page, and pivoted all our social media channels accordingly.
The PA Wilds Planning Team, our long-standing regional stakeholder group made up of the region’s county governments and collaborating nonprofits and other state and local partners, has moved to telecommuting and email for its committee work, and the Team’s leadership says it is ready to switch its regular April meeting to phone if needed.
The PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, our longtime partner in the PA Wilds, has temporarily closed its state parks and forest facilities and events statewide, including restrooms, but the public lands themselves remain open. DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn encouraged the public to practice social distancing while enjoying the healthful benefits of recreation and the outdoors during these challenging times, “including avoiding groups and crowds, and visitors should use the bathroom before they leave home.” COVID-19 updates from DCNR can be found here.
The Center remains as committed as ever to pursuing investment for our region to create jobs, diversify local economies, improve quality of life and inspire stewardship. The tourism industry is taking a staggering blow with the coronavirus, and the pandemic is likely to change how and where people travel in big ways over the coming years. Like others in the tourism industry, we are watching this unfold and trying to make sense of what it will mean. It is my belief that once we make it through, America is likely to see a deeper appreciation of all things local, and that many will pursue closer-to-home travel options in less populated places that offer meaningful connections to community, the outdoors and good health. These are some of the core values and promises of the Pennsylvania Wilds brand and experience, and we will be ready to leverage them to aid in our tourism sector’s recovery.
Amid this crisis, our hearts are with the impacted businesses and the families behind them; with the local, state and federal government officials working to contain this coronavirus to protect our vulnerable populations; and with the health care workers on the front lines. We see you and appreciate your efforts immensely.
PA Wilds Center
Founder + CEO