60% of respondents to town’s business survey said sales increased last year; staff shortages, supply chain top obstacles

Southold’s Economic Development Committee intends to conduct another business survey in 2022, in hopes of a higher response rate. 

The committee presented the results to a survey launched this summer, with 37 respondents, at a town work session Tuesday. The survey, which lived on the town website, was meant to assess the severity of COVID-19’s impact on the local business community. It was promoted by business groups, visits to businesses in various hamlets and click throughs from the town website’s homepage.

“I think we felt that this could be a viable tool if we expanded and deepened it,” said Sarah Garretson, an economic development committee member. 

She asked the Town Board for help promoting and marketing a future questionnaire. She also asked for feedback on any issues board members might like more focus on. 

“This is kind of an overall effort to bring the business voice back to you to supplement what you get from your own individual reactions,” she said. “We want to supplement the survey by doing some interviews of larger employers and maybe some focus groups.”

Nearly 60% of respondents to the survey said sales increased over the past year, despite the ongoing pandemic. A little more than 13% said sales declined, while 27% said they remained the same. 

“This was in the summer, fall time-frame when they were responding, so there was more optimism,” Ms. Garretson said. She added that some might be just returning to pre-COVID sales levels, but she also thinks there’s a subset that did “really well.” 

Jack Malley, Economic Development Committee chairperson, added that he thinks pivoting online made a difference for a lot of businesses. 

More than 60% of respondents received government support over the past year. 

The number one challenge facing businesses right now is labor, respondents said, followed by supply chain issues. Regulations, real estate, sales and connectivity were other obstacles respondents faced last year. 

Other concerns highlighted by survey participants included land use and zoning issues, encouraging residents and businesses to buy local, workforce housing and traffic, among other things. 

A wide variety of businesses responded, ranging from maritime and agriculture to retail and hospitality. Nearly half employed 10 or fewer workers, nearly 30% employed between 11 and 25 staff and about 8% employed more than 25. Nearly 20% of respondents were self-employed.

Town Board member Brian Mealy said 37 respondents is a great starting point, while board member Jill Doherty pointed out that Mr. Malley had initially said he didn’t expect a high response rate “because the business community wasn’t used to that communication.”

“I think that you started that communication in a secure place where these people feel safe to say what’s on their mind and it’s an avenue, because they’re not going to come in here and say stuff, you know what I mean? So I think this is good,” she said. 

Supervisor Scott Russell suggested a public discussion about the role of tourism in Southold. 

“At this point, I think it’s still very important. But is it really the only future we have? Because there’s been a paradigm shift in the demographics out here,” he said. 

The population is less seasonal and spends more locally. Some businesses could shift focus from the tourism industry to the day-to-day economy, he said. 

Town Board member Greg Doroski suggested using a follow up survey to investigate what businesses see as the future economy in Southold and how the town can support them. 

“It seems like if we can potentially, as a board, put together some questions, or at least subject areas we’d like to drill into a little more, that’s a good start,” he said.