Almost a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Geauga County stakeholders gathered virtually recently for a look back at 2020 and a peek into 2021.
“I know that these realities of COVID are impacting all of us, here’s a perfect example where we normally got together at Kent State and just can’t do that right now,” said Kimm Leininger, president and CEO of Geauga Growth Partnership.
Jen Freeman, vice president of Richards Maple Products in Chardon, told the group that the some of the practices used for business survival may continue this year as residents look forward to the 91st annual Geauga County Maple Festival in April.
“As far as agriculture goes, we didn’t know that there were any issues last year,” Ms. Freeman said of the pandemic that started to hit home in late February and early March of 2020. “All of the crops seemed to have been great last year and it looks like we are ramping up for great season this year with all of the snow, cold and everything.”
Richard’s Maple Product has been in business since 1910 in the heart of Chardon. “We got through the first weekend of our maple tours before anything hit and when it got to the second weekend, they were canceled,” said Ms. Freeman.
It was shortly after that when the Maple Festival board met and decided to cancel the 2020 Maple Festival.
“We were supposed to celebrate our 110th anniversary last year and we had big plans for that which couldn’t go forward, so we decided to do our own drive-thru Maple Festival,” said Ms. Freeman. “We worked closely with the police department, fire department and the health department to figure out plans here at our place.”
Ms. Freeman worked with the Geauga County Health Department on the event, which was drive-thru only, and workers wearing face coverings waited on customers and procedures were in place for handling money and payments.
On what should have been Maple Festival weekend, Richards held a drive-thru event.
“We started off Friday it was a great day, very busy and flowed just fine, and by the second day people were anxious to get out,” said Mrs. Freeman. “The entire back parking lot of our place was full, and the front parking lot was full, the businesses across the street were full, and Route 6 a half mile each way were full.”
They knew it was more than they could handle and called the police department for help with traffic, and by 1:30 p.m. that day they had to close and would not be able to reopen where they were.
“We got together quickly with Ransom Sage Farm and put together a drive-thru over there, so it was a farmer’s market drive-thru, but we did have some concession foods,” said Ms. Freeman. “His property over there is 120 acres and runs from 44 over to Auburn, and with it being the one and tenth mile that it is, we coined it the ‘maple mile’ for the event.”
This was also an extremely popular drive-thru event, she said, with the driveway completely filling up again with people wanting to get out of the house to do something fun, and they had to call the sheriff’s department to help with traffic control.
“If you were in line during the peak times, your wait time was three hours, and people came in, they didn’t mind it was cold out, they were warm.” said Ms. Freeman. “A lot of them came out in their jammies and had coffee with the kids in the backseat, they were just so happy to be out of the house.”
The popularity of the Richards Maple Products’ drive-thru events spread, with coverage of local media prompting the business to keep it going in other Ohio locations.
In August of last year, they were able to have a small event at the Geauga County fairgrounds during the junior fair along with a small number of vendors there.
“So, this is how we adapted for 2020 and it kind of looks like 2021 will be much the same as last year, but that’s all right, I feel like we’re better equipped to handle it,” said Ms. Freeman.
Ted Bunton, of Troy Chemical, Ted Bunton shared his perspective on doing business during 2020.
“As far as the lessons we have learned in 2020, everybody has been impacted by this, nobody has been immune to it, said Mr. Bunton. “I think there were a lot of questions initially or unknown answers and maybe there still are, but nevertheless it’s impacted everybody, and it’s impacted us as a small company and how we should continue to move forward.”
Mr. Bunton said as a business they took on financial risk and invested in the company but just a couple months into last year, the expected growth period turned into turbulent times.
“Once February and March  hits, all of a sudden we had to circle the wagons, so to speak, and had a lot of internal meetings here and all of a sudden, it basically flipped over one aspect of our business,” said Mr. Bunton. “We had to reinvest in our company when we didn’t think we were going to initially, but just like that we had to really kind of do what needed to be done.”
Mr. Bunton said they had been trying to focus on effectively communicating as a team and were not set up for people to work remotely. “We had a couple of people who didn’t have internet in their home, it is what it is,” he said. “Like everybody else we had to make sure we had the right people in place.”
Jeannie Fleming-Gifford, executive director at the Fairmount Center for the Arts said her organization is thrilled to still be open.
“This year we are celebrating 50 years and we are a COVID survivor, and I say that because the research is still underway, but as many as one-third of nonprofits have said they will close as a result of COVID-19,” she said.
For more than four decades, Fairmount Center for the Arts has provided thousands of Geauga and Cuyahoga residents the opportunity to explore the arts with classes theater, dance, music, art and fitness.
“Generally, we serve about 10,000 people a year through those programs, and also through the performance events,” said Mrs. Gifford.
“As for how COVID-19 impacted us and our operations, we operate much like a school, and so when the school systems paused operations on March 16,  our goal was to open three weeks later on site,” said Mrs. Gifford. “As with many businesses, it became very clear that we would not be doing that.”
They were able to shift about 80 percent of the programs online. That was a challenge, she said, since normally the center promotes a hands-on learning environment and initially did not have the technology.
“We were fortunate enough to be able to get most of our programs up and running by April 6,” said Mrs. Gifford. “We also undid our summer camp schedule and our summer class schedule.”
Mrs. Gifford said they modified their summer camp offerings.
“Knowing the economic impact and what was happening, we became very passionate about making our programs accessible to everyone.
“I went to the Figgy Foundation and I said, ‘You know, we believe in our mission and we know that right now there’s a lot of uncertainty, we want to offer free programs this summer,’ and I am delighted that they came through for us,” Mrs. Gifford said.
Prior to the pandemic, she said, the center did not embrace digital technology, preferring the in-person approach to the arts. “But we have learned how to use technology and how to expand our services,” Mrs. Gifford said.
“We’re never going back, we have found something that works and it’s much more effective, something we needed to do, and COVID-19 forced us to move in that direction.
“We are really thriving and looking forward to the future,” Mrs. Gifford concluded.