A Small, Ozarks Town’s Economy Relies On Creativity, Relief Funding To Weather The Pandemic
(Editor's note: KSMU is exploring one small town’s journey through this extraordinary year in our series, COVID in the Rural Ozarks. This is the fourth and final part.)
At the small craft brewery Wages Brewing Company in West Plains, Missouri, beer flows from six taps bringing customers treats like a milky winter stout and their signature "Landlocked IPA.”
In normal times, customers would raise a glass inside the small taproom or sit outside under a pavilion.
But normal doesn’t exist anymore for Phil Wages, who co-founded the brewery with his wife in 2016. The City of West Plains locked down bars and restaurants in March, forcing the small brewery to limit sales to curbside services. Although Wages opened the taproom back up in July, he says customers are pretty much staying outside.
“Sales have been about half of normal," Wages said. "So it’s definitely hurting things.”
Wages offers live music on Saturdays, but he won’t be able to bring the party inside when the weather turns chilly. He says he’ll try to install outdoor heaters or a small, temporary structure to protect people from the cold.
The state of Missouri temporarily loosened some restrictions last month, allowing businesses like his to make deliveries for now. He actually delivered a keg to a man who was in quarantine.
“I said, ‘I will deliver it to you, but you have to stay in your house. I will put it on your porch. I’ll get back in my vehicle and text you that it’s there,’” Wages said.
Wages said he's well aware that the numbers are not on his side: the Brewers Association, a national trade group, has predicted that a "significant percentage" of small breweries may not survive the pandemic.
Statewide, Missouri has 140 craft breweries – and collectively they bring in $1.29 million a year, according to the Brewers Association.
Federal CARES Act funding: a temporary lifeline
Many of the town's businesses, including Wages Brewing Company, have avoided the worst because of federal CARES Act relief funding.
Toney Aid owns Downtown Antiques in West Plains and has been a leader in revitalizing the historic downtown area.
He's also involved with the Ozarks Small Business Incubator, or OzSBI, which is helping administer federal CARES Act funding.
Aid says his business was hit hard during the lockdown period. But he reopened for three days a week starting in June with a strict mask policy. He says he balanced his budget to make up for lost revenue. It hasn’t been all doom and gloom around here, he said.
“I haven’t seen a whole lot close. In fact, in the last month I’ve seen two new businesses open on the square, an antique shop and a restaurant," said Aid.
Because many of Downtown Antique’s patrons are retired and older, Aid says his antique shop is requiring employees and customers to wear masks at all times. He wants customers to feel they can get out of the house while being safe.
And Aid says he’s worried about contracting the virus himself; he’s over the age of 70 and he has preexisting conditions.
“I try to not do anything that puts me at risk. I feel I have a responsibility for my employees not to get sick, but for my family and myself – I don’t want to get sick, either," he said.
Businesses may ask customers to wear masks; mandates not in place
Masking was a choice Aid made because masks are not required by the local government here. In August, a citywide masking ordinance failed to pass after a passionate debate over freedom and public health regulations.
But now, the coronavirus has spread to every nursing home in the county. (See our reporting on that here.)
Twenty percent of Howell County’s population is age 65 or older, according to the US Census Bureau—that’s compared to just 16.8 percent of Greene County. Small towns and cities alike are constantly trying to recruit people to work and retire in their communities.
Susan DeMuria, a West Plains resident who would like to see a masking mandate pass here, says the lack of public health regulations sends a calloused message to anyone thinking about moving to West Plains.
“We’re not in a bubble here," DeMuria said. "If people are looking to retire to this community, they’re going to see what happened. They’re going to see that there was never a mask mandate. They’re going to see that there was never one anywhere. And they’re not going to feel safe coming here.”
DeMuria said she wishes local leaders would rethink their priorities. She says the economy is not as important as the lives that are being lost due to the coronavirus spreading uncontrolled.
Tourism, retail considerations for a regional hub
Phil Wages, the brewer, says he’s frustrated by the lack of a West Plains or statewide masking mandate. He worries it has the potential to drive outsiders away from his brewery.
“I think folks, especially travelers, if they research where they’re going, and they want to go to a place they can feel like masks and safety is being taken seriously, they’re not going to come to West Plains,” Wages said.
But many business owners in this town are against masking mandates. The CDC has said masks and limiting group sizes effectively slow the spread of the virus.
Two of the major employers here are Ozarks Medical Center and Missouri State University-West Plains. With a population of around 12,000, West Plains is the largest town in about a 100 mile radius. It’s a regional hub for health care, education and retail—meaning when even smaller communities are struggling, that’s felt here in town. In Howell County, only one in six residents has a bachelor’s degree or higher; the median household income is about $36,000.
State data: unemployment down statewide, but many have left the civilian workforce
Statewide, there’s some encouraging news: Missouri’s unemployment rate dropped in September to 4.9 percent, meaning fewer people are filing for unemployment claims after joblessness skyrocketed early in the pandemic.
But unemployment is still higher than it was a year ago. And there are data showing that many people are dropping out of the workforce completely—particularly women.
And nonprofits, which are especially needed right now, have seen many of their main fundraisers cancelled.
Darrel Hampsten oversees the Small Business Development Center at MSU – West Plains. He says many small businesses stayed afloat through federal stimulus funding, but much of that dried up at the end of the summer. Hampsten says businesses now face a daunting challenge going into the winter as the deadline to spend CARES Act funding looms.
“In the meantime there are a lot small businesses that are struggling. I believe this upcoming Christmas season, will make or break a lot of them,” Hampsten said.
Hampsten encourages people to shop at small businesses first for the holidays, and to respect a store’s masking policy so they can stay open. He also encourages business owners to call the Small Business Development Center to apply for CARES Act assistance. That number is (417)-255-7966.
Howell County, like many places in the Midwest right now, is entering into the thick of the pandemic. The virus has breached even the sturdiest of fortresses in every nursing home in the county and the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests here is well above the state's “red zone” threshold.
And despite its recent fiery debates, the town has a deep tradition of helping one another, like farmers sharing food during the Great Depression or military spouses taking care of one another during the World Wars. This community will need to lean on that spirit of altruism, that rallying behind a common cause, as it hopes for brighter days ahead.
Coronavirus relief in south-central Missouri is available. You can find out more information below:
Ozarks Small Business Incubator (OzSBI): 417-256-9724
Small Business Development Center at MSU-West Plains: 417-255-7966
Community Foundation of West Plains, Inc. (CFO): 416-372-2136
Ozark Action (poverty relief, social services in Howell, Douglas, Oregon, Ozark, Texas, and Wright counties): 417-256-6147