Sarah Phillips

ANDREW KENNESON/Kodiak Daily Mirror

Sarah Phillips, the executive director of the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce. 

Editor’s Note: Women own 25% of the businesses on Kodiak Island. To highlight some of these leadership efforts, the Kodiak Daily Mirror is exclusively profiling women during the course of the next month in our Page 1 Business Profile spot. We start today with Sarah Phillips, executive director of the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life for everyone in some way. But few have had to adapt more than Sarah Phillips, the executive director of the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce. 

From helping local businesses stay afloat to trying to hold community events like Crab Fest and ComFish, very little about her job has stayed the same. 

“This year has really been one of having Plan A, B, C and D, and then using Plan Z,” Phillips said. 

Phillips has been the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce for about a year and a half. When she first took over, she said she was focused on creating more educational opportunities for local businesses and expanding beyond the events the chamber is known for. 

She partnered with Kodiak College to help create a small-business development program at the chamber, where small-business owners could come and learn skills such as how to use QuickBooks accounting software, how to develop an online presence or how to stay in compliance with business regulations. 

“That’s been a big transition for us and we’re really proud to offer that education,” Phillips said. 

That got rolled out in January. But then COVID-19 hit, and the chamber’s role completely changed.

In the chamber’s five-year plan, Phillps wanted to educate, support and grow membership. Education was just getting started when the pandemic hit fast-forward on those plans. Support became the most important thing. 

“Just overnight, we saw how important it was for our businesses to have that additional support,” Phillips said. 

That meant setting up curbside pickup or websites. Then there were all the mandates pouring out of governments at all levels to keep up with, covering everything from safety to social distancing to shutdowns. Plus, new funding tools emerged to help local businesses, an alphabet soup of aid available to anyone who could decode the tangle of rules surrounding them all: CARES, PPP, EIDL. 

Phillps was among those who helped local businesses try to make sense of it all. 

“We had to become experts at those mandates and disseminating information,” Phillips said. “It was a lot of reading, daily, comparing and contrasting the mandates to see what words changed.” 

Most of the questions she fielded from businesses had to do with the latter. PPP, the Paycheck Protection Program, and EIDL, the Economic Injury Disaster Loans, were two programs that came out of the U.S. Small Business Administration to help businesses get through the early months of the pandemic.

People wanted to know everything from what the program was to how to apply and, far too often, what to do if their business didn’t qualify. 

There were many restrictions on PPP and EIDL. Sole proprietors, for instance, had a hard time getting money for “paycheck protection” because they didn’t necessarily write paychecks to themselves. 

CARES, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, helped fill in some of those gaps. Businesses could apply to a local group, the Kodiak Economic Development Corporation, and get aid that filtered down from the federal government. 

Along with Aimee Williams of Discover Kodiak, John Whiddon of the Kodiak City Council and Mark Anderson of Northrim Bank, Phillips sat on the KEDC Board and helped wade through hundreds of applications for grant money. 

That helped, but it didn’t touch everyone. Fishing people, who make up a huge chunk of Kodiak’s economy, still had trouble getting money. 

“It’s not a secret that even the KEDC struggled to be able to find ways to directly tie their losses to COVID, which is a requirement of the CARES Act money,” Phillips said. 

Market prices for seafood did fall, but it was difficult to prove that was related to the pandemic, since seafood prices are volatile to begin with. 

Fortunately, some grant programs aimed at fishing people have emerged, mostly through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Phillips said, and the chamber has been pointing them that way. 

“Our job is not necessarily to have all the answers but to know where to direct people to find out the answer,” Phillips said. 

On top of all this, there were the events. Crab Fest and ComFish are both key cogs in the Kodiak economy, as well as fixtures in people’s lives. At first, they were both postponed to the fall, but Phillips was determined to eventually have both. 

Crab Fest ended up being a hybrid online and in-person event, which took weeks and weeks of extra planning and coordination for something that wasn’t nearly as memorable as years past. 

“While it’s not what anyone wanted, I was so honored to bring that to the community,” Phillips said. 

“It went a whole lot better than if it was nothing. … The people who enjoyed what we were able to offer was why we did it.” 

ComFish went entirely online, though Phillips said she’s already planning the trade show portion for next year.

Up next is the holiday season, and trying to maximize the small-business opportunities that come with it. It will be another crucial step to help small businesses overcome this most unusual year. 

“The biggest thing that I can stress to everyone is please shop locally this year for your Christmas gifts, whenever possible,” Phillips said. 

“This is how our businesses are going to be here in the future.” 

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