The pandemic has caused nationwide economic struggles, including here in Wyoming. You might be surprised to learn that it's also created a new wave of entrepreneurs.
Recently-elected state legislator Trey Sherwood directs the Laramie Main Street Alliance, an organization that aims to assist and promote local businesses. She said the city has seen a recent influx of entrepreneurs.
"We have nine new businesses that have opened downtown in the last two months or are about to open," said Sherwood. "It's incredible to see people who have had an idea for a business say, 'Okay. Now's the time to jump.'"
New business owners are making that leap for different reasons, but they may be spurred by the closures of certain sectors of the economy. Workers in service-based industries are among the hardest hit by the pandemic: the Wall Street Journal recently noted that "many new entrepreneurs previously worked at salons, gyms and restaurants."
Longtime Laramie resident Rhianna Handschu worked as a preschool teacher for years, but with two young children and a pandemic keeping everyone inside, she decided to shift gears.
"I think I had always sort of had it in the back of my head that this would be a fun idea to try and that this would be a really nice addition to Laramie," she said. "But I didn't really get serious about it until the pandemic hit."
That fun idea has been her reality since October, when Handschu opened a new business called the "Nest Toy Library." Now, the walls of her garage are lined with huge, plastic containers of toys: dolls, play pianos, a stack of colorful wooden semi-circles that fit together like a rainbow. At the Nest, instead of continuously buying new toys from the store, you check out a few at a time and swap them later.
Handschu said she sought to tailor their business to fit a socially-distanced world. That meant finding the right child-safe sanitizer and working with a local non-profit to build an online catalogue where parents could browse toys virtually.
Some challenges, though, remain difficult to overcome. For Handschu, one of the biggest challenges is building community at a time when the Nest can only safely function as a pick-up/drop-off space. "I hope that we can have parenting classes and playgroups," she said, "My vision for the Nest is a lot more than a toy library."
Sherwood added that another major difficulty for local businesses has been a recent shift toward online retailers. "We are still seeing business down by thirty percent," she said. "It's easy to [say], I'm online every day and working from home. It's inconvenient to go into town. So I'm just going to buy from Amazon."
Sherwood's advice: to continue to support your local businesses in a safe way. If you live in Laramie, you can do that through the city's Small Business Week, from November 27 to December 5. You might get a chance to meet the owners of a diverse array of new businesses in town, from a toy library to a traditional Chinese medicine shop to personalized home design.