On the Eastside and beyond, one common step cities have taken to support small businesses during the COVID-19 crisis is creating a digital main street of sorts — an online resource putting together the various goods and services local businesses have to offer to help make COVID-safe community support easier and simpler.

A new Mercer Island campaign, MINext, seeks to take this maneuver to the next level. A collaboration between the City of Mercer Island and its chamber of commerce, MINext seeks not only to amplify what the area’s small businesses have to offer but also to underscore the stories behind them.

In addition to offering a basic business directory, its website also contains scores of interviews with and portraits of business owners. Some participants have opted to have their work spotlighted in brief documentaries, which also can be viewed on YouTube.

Sarah Bluvas. Courtesy of City of Mercer Island.

“We wanted to try to highlight the personal connection first — capturing the stories of the businesses,” said Sarah Bluvas, the city’s emergency business liaison and one of the key minds behind the campaign. “A lot of our local businesses are owned by longtime island residents … so there really is kind of this deep history, a deep connection to the island that we wanted to remind community members of and strengthen and foster new connections.”

When the campaign launched late last year, the rollout was expected to end in early 2021. But while talking with 425 Business in late January, Bluvas said the effort is likely to go longer-term.

“With all the work that has gone into designing and ramping it up, and also the continued need to highlight local businesses, we think that it will continue through part — if not all — of this year,” she said. The seeds of MINext were planted early last year. After the City received funding to help small businesses via the Port of Seattle and King County CARES Act dollars, consultants conducted a needs survey of all businesses on the island in tandem with general conversations with business owners, representatives, and the chamber of commerce.

According to Bluvas, Mercer Island didn’t have an appointed economic development person or primary development function within the City before the onset of the pandemic. So, she was reassigned as an extension of the City’s Emergency Operations Center to help identify small-business needs in the short and long term, she said.

Overwhelmingly, many business owners expressed a desire for marketing support — essentially a need for a streamlined “landing place” for customers to go to that worked in conjunction with “buy local”-style marketing.

Bluvas said one of the earliest kickoff meetings with consultants Suzanne Zahr (of Suzanne Zahr, Inc.) and Laurent Bourscheidt (of L+B Design, which spearheaded web design) happened around the time social-justice protests began nationwide in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

MINext’s landing page.

“Suzanne, Laurent, and I were having this conversation of, you know, how do we support local businesses, but how do we (also) inspire a sense of healing?” Bluvas recalled. “The whole world is impacted by this pandemic, and then we have civil unrest on top of it for very important causes … that really kind of bore out this idea of focusing on the people behind the businesses as opposed to (just) the products or services that they provide.”

“The idea was to really give exposure to businesses,” Bourscheidt said. “We’ve all been in a situation where we drive by a store in our neighborhood — we keep seeing them, but we never set foot in there … we don’t really know what this business is about and who’s behind it, who’s running it. The idea was to really tell the stories of each business owner, their connection to the public and community, and create some relationship.”

As of late January, the bulk of people and places highlighted on MINext are ones who already had a strong relationship with the City and/or the chamber, since they could be relied on to immediately get on board and help populate the website with content, Bluvas said.

Ginny Clarke, who co-owns Clarke & Clarke Art + Artifacts with her husband and acts as its gallery director, said that joining the effort appealed to her because she felt the format was feasible, and afforded business owners an opportunity to engage, connect with, and follow up on responses to posts and ads.

“Clarke & Clarke Art + Artifacts is not a business that features any necessities or services that one might pursue on a regular basis. … The development of this supportive ‘helping hand’ project makes an effort to create awareness, interest, and to connect the community to us and vice versa,” Clarke said.

Laurent Bourschedit. Photo via Twitter.

Although the short video interviews with business owners are one emphasis of the campaign, Bluvas said it’s been a little difficult, despite taking proper precautions, to find subjects wanting to participate, citing COVID-19 concerns and uncertainties over time commitment.

Still, Bluvas said, there was a great turnout among those interested, and there are plans to reach back out to businesses who were apprehensive about joining efforts initially.

Bluvas said at the time of the interview that it was a little too early to gauge the impacts of MINext on the business community. She said digital foot traffic to businesses through the MINext website, and how video interviews gain traction views-wise on YouTube, will be further examined. How the latter portion of the campaign is received, Bluvas said, will be a major incentive for businesses to participate in the first place.

“People can come back over and over,” Bourscheidt said of the website, which is continuously updated with new profiles and videos. “Our intention is really to expand further — keep building up the website.”

Bluvas said MINext should be considered Mercer Island’s take on a “buy local, spend local” movement. “

It’s so critical, always — let alone just now during a recession and really critical public health crisis — to support your local business,” Bluvas said. “And that is a priority of Mercer Island — supporting our local businesses, but also carrying them through to kind of the after of, ‘What does life on Mercer Island look like for business after the pandemic?’”