One development to come from the COVID-19 pandemic that could be positive for Christian County is that several groups devoted to economics and business are working together more than they have before.
Ozark Chamber of Commerce Director Anna Evans explained to the Ozark Board of Aldermen how Ozark and Nixa didn’t always work together when it came to working with existing businesses. They drew the line at the city limits, at Fremont Road or at North 40th Street. If a business in Ozark needed outside help with staying open or with growing, it turned to the chamber of commerce in Ozark, with little input or help from other parts of Christian County.
“Historically, each city has been a little bit on its own when it comes to business retention and expansion, and essentially having a mechanism in place to make sure that those conversations are happening,” Evans said.
In the wake of stay-at-home orders from COVID-19 changing the way people work, shop and live, chamber of commerce staffers from Ozark, Nixa, Clever and other stakeholders from Christian County have a regular rotation of meetings with the staff at Show Me Christian County, which is an economic group funded through the governments of Ozark, Nixa and Christian County.
They also meet with staffers from the Missouri Department of Economic Development.
“We all get together on a monthly basis and figure out which conversations we can have, who has connections here, and who we need to go speak to. So there is basically a whole group of folks who are volunteering their professional time to go out and have these confidential conversations with our business owners, but it allows us to have the data to gather it all in one place, to say, ‘Hey, you know, XYZ industry is really struggling with—‘ whatever the issue might be. If there are things that we need to turn around then and maybe advocate for or connect them with resources that maybe they didn’t know were available, or employee trainings, or anything like that, we have that data available as a community,” Evans said.
During a public hearing on whether or not Ozark would require the use of face coverings in public places in effort to reduce the potential spread of the COVID-19 virus, Ozark Alderman Heather Alder noted that several speakers identified themselves as business owners. Alder said that some business owners felt that officials in the public sector didn’t seem to care about the impact that public health measures related to COVID-19 have had on their businesses.
“They said that nobody visited them to see how they were doing. I’ve been thinking about that and wondering if we were actually doing anything to keep in contact with businesses,” Alder said.
Nearly 400 businesses received phone calls from the Ozark Chamber of Commerce in 2020, though that figure only applies to businesses who buy into maintaining a chamber membership.
“The mechanisms that we have in place for communication from the chamber are limited by the fact that if someone is not a member of the chamber, a lot of times we may not have the means to contact them,” Evans said.
Ozark Chevrolet and Lambert’s Cafe were among the first major Ozark businesses Evans named as having critical discussions in order to adapt and continue to serve as economic drivers through the effects of the pandemic.
“Everything that we have done to try to solicit feedback from our businesses—that’s been our biggest challenge. Honestly, it’s been kind of a personal challenge to me, is to say, ‘How can we make sure that we are making connections with the overall business community beyond just those who are members of our chamber?’ That’s a communications challenge for us,” Evans said.
Andy Mills, the general manager of Lambert’s Cafe, will not look back on March 13, 2020, with any sort of fondness. Traditionally, the Ozark landmark gets busy at the start of spring. Instead of 90-minute waits, Lambert’s had an empty parking lots in March. The restaurant was completely closed for two weeks, but reopened to offer orders to go.
Lambert’s, where customers used to sit elbow-to-elbow chowing down on fried okra, macaroni and tomatoes and famous rolls, is back open again and bringing in tourists.
In the past, Lambert’s largely relied on its reputation and some television advertising to bring tourists in to eat. Social media platforms became a marketing tool, and additional technology came inside the restaurant for taking names for the wait list and orders. Some of those changes brought on by the coronavirus will stay.
“We’ve always been behind times. We haven’t had to use a lot of technology because we’ve been blessed to have good business over the years,” Mills said. “We’re doing things that we never thought that we’d do, but it works.”
Nixa Chamber of Commerce President Chris Russell saw evidence of economic recovery with sales tax revenue reports from July 2020.
Sales tax dollars are up for both communities. Year to date, Nixa is up nearly 8 percent from 2019, or an estimated $123,000. Sales tax revenues reported in Ozark are up an estimated 6 percent, or an estimated $107,000 from 2019.
“As a matter of fact, this entire year has seen steady increases month over month for the most part. One major factor has been both Nixa and Ozark are primarily essential type businesses—food, hardware, service industries, auto and more,” Russell said.
That doesn’t mean every business is surviving and thriving. Some shops in Nixa and Ozark have closed their doors, or taken their store to another location or to the internet.
“I am also extremely sensitive to the economic impact this pandemic has had on some businesses and employees as well. Honestly, your chamber is one of them,” Russell wrote in a letter to members of the Nixa Chamber of Commerce.