Four business owners sharpen skills for COVID-19 survival
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Montanya Distillers owner Karen Hoskin (l) and Kooler Homes owner Matthew Kuehlhorn.
Montanya Distillers owner Karen Hoskin (l) and Kooler Homes owner Matthew Kuehlhorn.

When the COVID-19 pandemic led to the shutdown of businesses in the Gunnison Valley, local contractor Matthew Kuehlhorn knew he was going to have to be creative. As an entrepreneur he has built his business, Kooler Homes, from the ground up over the last several years.

But when Public Health Orders, both locally and at the state level, threatened to shut down his operation, he moved quickly — he found federal documentation which listed building trades as essential businesses and presented it to health officials.

As an essential business, he and fellow contractors were permitted to continue operations, but he soon realized that staying afloat won’t come easy.

“As an entrepreneur, there’s a choice. We can create or we can react,” said Kuehlhorn. “I told a couple of people this, but it lands on deaf ears. We have to entrepreneur the hell out of this.”

Additionally Kuehlhorn applied for the Paycheck Protection Program which provides federal funds to a business which maintains its staff for two months. He’s been able to provide his employees some security in an uncertain time.

But soon, Kuehlhorn was presented with a new challenge. A decree by Gov. Jared Polis, he said, prevented state construction-related inspections from occurring in what were designated as hot spots for novel coronavirus — Gunnison County being one of them. Kuehlhorn worked with local leaders who took the matter directly to the governor, and within a matter of days, state inspections here were being conducted once again.

“That was a big one and it happened pretty quickly,” he said.

Kuehlhorn has been part of the industry subgroups offered through Gunnison County’s COVID-19 recovery plan. He is one of 60 people who take part in a weekly call in which contractors exchange information and learn of trends and challenges that impact them all.

The business owner said that the subgroup has allowed him to give feedback to Public Health regarding restrictions because the effort has been driven from the bottom up; still, he’s concerned that the structure could change. He’s offering feedback that the forum should not become flipped with information and direction flowing from the top down.

“When things are top down it freaks people out. No true red blooded American wants to be dictated to,” said Kuehlhorn. “When it’s top down there’s a feeling of loss of control, loss of influence and it gets to a reactionary status. We have to give the control back to the creators of this economy.”

Following the closure of restaurants, Firebrand Delicatessan owner Heidi Magnus and her sister, Kate, took some time to do research on the best way to get her doors back open. In addition to her own research, she tapped the Gunnison Country Chamber of Commerce, which directed her to the Small Business Development Center (SBDC). The SBDC helped her find federal funding to support her business. The business reopened offering delivery and pick up orders only, until she can once again offer seating.

On the north end of the valley Montanya Distillers' owner Karen Hoskin has also been utilizing her entrepreneurial skills to keep her business alive. Because of her background in science from a previous career, Hoskin is in no hurry to rush her reopening to prevent a possible resurgence of COVID-19.

“I would like to see us open more slowly and have a more robust summer,” Hoskin said. “We can’t financially afford another shutdown.”

Hoskin has been monitoring both national and international trends with the virus. She supports thresholds being set for the number of coronavirus cases reported during various stages, and basing the reopening process on them.

“The question is, how do we as a community protect itself,” Hoskin said. “I don’t want to put my staff out there in the front lines … to an incoming population. If they get sick … they can be medically bankrupted.”

She acknowledged the helpless feeling among fellow business owners — those who worry about survival. She too has been part of the industry subgroups and has gone further than just getting her own needs met. She’s giving advice to those who feel desperate in an environment they can’t control, even assisting them in obtaining federal relief funds.

Public Health Orders are expected to set a phased reopening of restaurants which is based on restricted capacity. Hoskin said she’s helping other restaurants determine what is best for them.

“We’re helping people to evaluate their cash flow, and what their break even is,” she said. “If you can only seat people in 10 chairs, what does your bottom line look like? Many recognize it doesn’t make sense to open by May 22. It may make more sense to open on June 10.” 

She called the work done in the subgroups, “exceptional,” with dozens of people specific to industries providing feedback to county leaders. That feedback is funneled through staff which provide a written plan for health officials to review.

“So many people are working so hard,” Hoskin said. “I took exception to the fact that a woman who said if (her group) didn’t push county leaders, nothing would have happened. Why are you saying nobody would have done anything when we have had so many people working on this?” 

For those who are pushing for a fast reopening, she asks, What if no one walks in the door?

“We have to consider the long range reputation of this community,” Hoskin said. “If we have a radical second outbreak, they might go to Telluride or Silverton. We have to think about how to do this in a way to make people feel really good, really safe about coming here. It’s not throwing open the doors — it’s crafting a solution that brings us customers.”
 

(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at editor@gunnisontimes.com.)