HERNANDO — While it may be too early to see into 2021’s future, Hernando County Economic Development Director Valerie Pianta is hopeful that by summer the county will see the economic tide change.

Between assisting local businesses and citizens with grants afforded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the EDC has been brainstorming ideas to create opportunities for small businesses to learn more about entrepreneurship. Pianta said she would like to nurture community members who have fantastic skills but lack the know-how to grow their business.

“We may team up with the (Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce) to provide some educational classes, some more focus on entrepreneurship for our very small businesses,” Pianta said. “We have a lot of sole proprietors and independent contractors. I’d like to see some programs invested in for them so they can enhance their skill sets for their current business or for folks who were displaced. I’d like to see some more opportunity for entrepreneurial learning.”

After a turbulent year navigating temporary changes to the way businesses function due to COVID-19, the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce continues to support its local businesses as best as it can. On average, the chamber is seeing seven to 10 new members join each month, according to GHCCC President Morris Porton. Although, he added, that doesn’t necessarily mean new members are new businesses in the area.

“My goal is to be able to serve our membership in a different capacity,” Porton said. “Going forward, we’re going to have to be able to serve our members more virtually until we can get the virus behind us. Even with the vaccine, people are going to want to feel comfortable to go out and socialize like they used to.”

In 2020, the EDC was able to support more than 900 businesses with direct cash grants to help them through the pandemic while also assisting citizens with CARES funding for rental, mortgage, and utilities, according to Pianta.

“Our manufacturing base has continued to do well. We have companies that are really continuing to see some of their best sales years,” Pianta said. “Other businesses are still feeling the pain and effects of the pandemic, so it’s really difficult to say how quickly everyone will recover. I think our retail establishments will eventually recover as the vaccine becomes more readily available. I think as we’ll see that return to normal, you’ll start to see more people going out. People are hankering for it.”

Porton said the chamber has had to make some adjustments due to the “new normal” created by the pandemic. In-person training has been limited to smaller groups where social distancing can be observed. Ribbon-cuttings are now on a much-smaller scale, where it used to be a celebration with 30 to 100 people in attendance. Now, business owners have an option to invite the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce when opening to help promote their business on social media.

“We’re the only chamber in Hernando County and we feel an obligation to do what we can,” Porton said. “We have over 700 members right now, even after a lot of businesses have gone out. We still have people wanting to open businesses, whether it’s in their home or a storefront. There’s still a demand for business, it’s just being done in a different way.”

Pianta shared from her experience working with the EDC that she’s seen how a lot of small businesses have grown from out of people’s homes. From business’ growth, an opportunity for employment blossoms while also bringing more investment to the community.

“Those small businesses are really kind of the heartbeat of Hernando,” Pianta said. “They grow and bring more investment and opportunities for our other citizens to work there, but also it’s a new tax base and it’s diversity in our community.”

With a more user-friendly website and newer avenues to allow members to advertise online, the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce is working to promote businesses through social media. Porton said he was “pleasantly surprised” at the public response to the boost in providing businesses an online presence. This move also makes it easier for members to sign up online and join the chamber.

For more information, visit www.hernandochamber.com and www.hernandobusiness.com.