More than 200 businesses join Region AHEAD in first week

Local Coronavirus Coverage

KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL)- As businesses across the region cope with the impact of COVID-19, hundreds have joined the Appalachian Highlands-created Region AHEAD, a website connecting consumers to businesses to help them survive now and thrive in the future, after the pandemic.

“The businesses need help. There’s no doubt about it. They’re hurting out here and a lot of people are calling us saying ‘How can we help these businesses?’ So, this is one way of getting the word out,” said Kingsport Chamber CEO and President Miles Burdine.

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In the past week, more than 200 businesses have joined the project that not only serves as a central location for their information but also a database for the future.

“I think this site really is going to help us as a region understand and assess the economic impact that we’re going to have,” said Mitch Miller, the CEO for Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership and mastermind behind the initiative. “This will really kind of give us some good, valued feedback to be able to share with people like mayors, commissioners, councilmen and women — those folks who really care and want to see these businesses survive.”

Miller hopes the data provided from this will help to recruit businesses in the coming years.

“We may not be impacted nearly as much as a major metro might be and I think that’s going to help us in the future as businesses look to actually weigh decisions on where they are going to put their operations or where people are even going to live,” Miller said.

The website is more than just a platform for businesses to share their ever-changing practices in dealing with social distancing and quarantines. It also provides resources like where to find school closure feeding sites and essential items like hand sanitizer.

“They can find out frequently asked questions on the coronavirus and find what things people are doing here locally…like Tennessee Hills Distillery doing hand sanitizer and make sure that if that’s something that you need, you can find it and it’s right here in this region,” Miller said.

SEE MORE: Tennessee Hills Distillery makes hand sanitizer, donating profits to local organizations

Along with signing up a business, people can also sign up to volunteer to help those in their community.

“The network that we have for this specific project is so vast as it extends throughout the whole region and kind of unique in that all the cities are able to work together,” said Ashley Shutt, the website’s designer and Co-founder and Creative Director at Aerocreative.

She says the website list is exported once a day and businesses are listed within 24 hours of signing up.

Munch on Market in downtown Kingsport is just one business listed on the website. The restaurant just opened back in October. As it adapts to curbside and to-go only, co-owner Audrey Russel says there has been a significant drop in sales.

“We all are in this together so all we can do is just — the resources that they’re giving us, take advantage of them and then hope for the best,” Russell says.

Baby Boutique is just a few minutes away from downtown. Owner Kelly Whitson says she thinks the possibility of her business surviving after coronavirus is much higher because of joining Region AHEAD.

“(I want) just to get it out there how this COVID-19 really is affecting all of these local businesses and nobody’s coming out to shop,” Whitson said.

Just like for these businesses, the past week has been a rollercoaster of emotions for Miller and his team.

“There’s been some crying…there’s been just some worry and concern. And then there’s just been parts where its just like ‘By God, we’re going to do this… and we ain’t got time to cry,” he said.

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