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Harford County communities unite during pandemic

Gaby Frank, printing one of the custom Havre de Grace Strong 2020 t-shirts that she prints at her business, Stickdesign Embroidery & Garment Printing Studio. The logo was designed by Paula Casagrande of Big House Designs. She has had the business for twenty years. (Editors: note that she prefers to be called "Gaby," not Gabriele.) May 12, 2020
Gaby Frank, printing one of the custom Havre de Grace Strong 2020 t-shirts that she prints at her business, Stickdesign Embroidery & Garment Printing Studio. The logo was designed by Paula Casagrande of Big House Designs. She has had the business for twenty years. (Editors: note that she prefers to be called "Gaby," not Gabriele.) May 12, 2020 (Amy Davis)

Light displays brightened homes even though it was spring. The lights were an answer to Havre de Grace Mayor William T. Martin’s call to show unity in the face of COVID-19.

Throughout Harford County, residents and businesses came together — from holding food collections to creating inspirational T-shirts and banners honoring their graduating seniors — while hoping to emerge from the pandemic.

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Len Parrish, director of Harford County Community and Economic Development, says there’s no shortage of stories about how people came together to help each other.

Visit Harford, the county’s destination marketing group, shifted from promoting tourism to focusing on local businesses, Parrish said.

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Custom Havre de Grace Strong 2020 t-shirts printed by Gaby Frank at her business, Stickdesign Embroidery & Garment Printing Studio. The logo was designed by Paula Casagrande of Big House Designs. (Editors: note that she prefers to be called "Gaby," not Gabriele.) May 12, 2020
Custom Havre de Grace Strong 2020 t-shirts printed by Gaby Frank at her business, Stickdesign Embroidery & Garment Printing Studio. The logo was designed by Paula Casagrande of Big House Designs. (Editors: note that she prefers to be called "Gaby," not Gabriele.) May 12, 2020 (Amy Davis)

“I’ve found our business community to be very responsive … prioritizing heath over bottom profits,” Parrish said. “I am super-impressed with the Harford County spirit.”

For instance, as soon as COVID-19 struck, several local manufacturers began making 3D personal protective equipment. They donated and delivered essential personal supplies to first responders and emergency services.

Veteran-owned-and-operated White Tiger Distillery in Forest Hill started distilling alcohol to make hand sanitizer instead of whiskey.

The business supplied some to organizations at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, sold the product in-house and wholesale to local retailers, and donated some to senior-assisted living centers and first responders, including Abingdon Fire Company.

“Our communities are working together,” Matt Shea of White Tiger’s leadership team said in April. “It’s like my motto from the military — iron sharpening iron — where each team member does their part.”

Gaby Frank, wearing one of the custom Havre de Grace Strong 2020 t-shirts that she prints at her business, Stickdesign Embroidery & Garment Printing Studio. The logo was designed by Paula Casagrande of Big House Designs. (Editors note that she prefers to be called "Gaby" than Gabriele.) May 12, 2020
Gaby Frank, wearing one of the custom Havre de Grace Strong 2020 t-shirts that she prints at her business, Stickdesign Embroidery & Garment Printing Studio. The logo was designed by Paula Casagrande of Big House Designs. (Editors note that she prefers to be called "Gaby" than Gabriele.) May 12, 2020 (Amy Davis)

Aberdeen Businesses,Nonprofits Partner

When Karen Salmon, State Superintendent of Schools, announced the closure of schools on March 12, the Harford Community Action Agency [HCAA] and WebIXI— a digital marketing consulting firm in Aberdeen— sprang into action.

HCAA emptied its community food pantry on March 13 to prepare 200 emergency take-home care packages for delivery the next day to four schools with high numbers of low-income students, according to WebIXI President P. J. Chambers.

HCAA and WebIXI launched a virtual food drive, raising more than $20,000 by the end of April to restock the pantry, which quickly escalated to serving around 500 families a week during the height of the pandemic.

“Benefield Electric donated $10,000,” Chambers said. “I love Harford County because of the giving nature of the small businesses who’ve stepped up.”

WebIXI also created a “Keep Calm and Carry Out” T-shirt. It was sold on the Harford County vs. Coronavirus page of the company’s website. The proceeds benefitted the Community Foundation of Harford County’s Help Your Neighbor Fund and promoted local restaurants during the shutdown. A virtual tip jar facilitated donating “tips” to customers’ favorite servers.

As businesses shifted to operating remotely, WebIXI established a $100,000 matching grant program — awarded in $500 increments to eligible applicants — that matched its fees for designing new websites and other online marketing services hour by hour.

Helping Beyond Downtown Bel Air

Downtowns were often the first centers of the supportive activity that quickly spread through each community.

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Christopher Pineda, executive director of the Bel Air Downtown Alliance, said his organization partnered with Visit Harford to promote small businesses beyond downtown Bel Air.

The alliance published and maintained a directory with links to carryout and delivery services and online shopping options.

Pineda also said the alliance helped with communications between hard-hit businesses and their landlords discussing requests to defer or waive rent payments.

Meanwhile many Bel Air businesses made changes in their operating models to adapt to the governor’s mandates.

Looney’s Pub sold its Orange Crush drink in take-away coffee cups, Buontempo Brothers Pizza Shop created take-home pizza kits, and Main Street’s Sunny Day Café served as a market offering kitchen staples at cost with its carry-out food orders, Pineda said.

In mid April, WebIXI and 18 business partners organized an employee appreciation breakfast for 635 employees at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health Medical Center that was catered by Sunny Day Café.

Donations exceeding costs, Chambers said, went to the Southern Harford County Rotary Club to write a matching-funds grant to help the HCAA with COVID-19 related expenses.

As the conversations to reopen Maryland started, the Bel Air Downtown Alliance created an online 10-week recovery program outlining strategies for small businesses to navigate the changing economic climate.

Paula Casagrande, with her dog Buster, in front of the Havre de Grace Strong sign that she designed, which is on display near the entrance to her sign business, Big House Signs. May 12, 2020
Paula Casagrande, with her dog Buster, in front of the Havre de Grace Strong sign that she designed, which is on display near the entrance to her sign business, Big House Signs. May 12, 2020 (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

Havre de Grace Strong

In Havre de Grace, Director of Economic Development Erika Quesenbery says there was “a fountain of compassion and caring” there.

John and Susan Muldoon of Vandiver Inn cooked and donated hundreds of meals to feed kids at the Boys and Girls Club, and Rory White of Edward Jones Investments started a fundraiser in support and donated $1,000 in matching funds, Quesenbery says.

A colorful “Together We Are Havre de Grace Strong” logo embodying the community’s spirit could be spotted on storefronts and residential lawn signs.

Paula Casagrande, owner of Big House Signs, designed the logo that she also printed on hundreds of 3-by-4-inch bumper stickers that were sold for $5.

Half of those sales supported the American Legion Post 47 food pantry, which opened in response to COVID-19. It cost about $250 each day to restock the pantry, according to Alma Orive, post adjutant.

Gabriele “Gaby” Frank, who owns the Stickdesign Embroidery & Garment Printing Studio, said she was swamped in early April sewing fitted face masks for family and friends and for sale to the public for $5. And when Frank spotted Big House Signs’ “awesome HdG Strong logo” on social media, she asked her friend for the design.

Casagrande gave her use of the logo pro bono, and Frank began selling custom tees aiming to donate 50% of the sales to essential workers.

A sign to unite residents during the coronavirus pandemic, "Together We Are Havre De Grace Strong," displayed on N. Union Avenue, is popping up around town. It was designed by Paula Casagrande of Big House Signs. May 12, 2020
A sign to unite residents during the coronavirus pandemic, "Together We Are Havre De Grace Strong," displayed on N. Union Avenue, is popping up around town. It was designed by Paula Casagrande of Big House Signs. May 12, 2020 (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

Looking to the recovery

As some businesses began reopening in late May, they were able to turn to various agencies to help them figure out how they might recover from the pandemic, how to plan for their next steps.

For instance, Parrish said, his partners with the Chamber of Commerce’s Harford County Chamber Business Resilience Task Force continued to support the business community.

The task force works closely with Visit Harford and local business associations to develop and recommend solutions to challenges of economic resilience and recovery, as well as ongoing labor and employment challenges.

The Department of Community and Economic Development and the Chamber of Commerce also focused on connecting businesses to state and federal resources.

“In our role as the voice and advocate of business, helping distraught business owners is tremendously satisfying — the wins are priceless,” said Chamber President and CEO Angela Rose.

When the economic fallout from the pandemic settles, Parrish said, loan programs funded by the county with some federal funds passed down through the state are planned to help local businesses.

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Businesses will continue to work with their communities — the same ones they supported — to figure out the next steps to begin to recover.

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