Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes speaks during a virtual listening session focused on small businesses' economic recovery from the pandemic. (Screenshot)
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes speaks during a virtual listening session focused on small businesses' economic recovery from the pandemic. (Screenshot)

Wisconsin has “a tremendous opportunity” to help small business recovery and growth, a brewery and restaurant owner says.

This past year has been hard for Michelle Tressler, co-owner of Hinterland Brewery and Restaurant in Green Bay and Whistling Swan Inn and Restaurant in Fish Creek, but she’s viewing it as a chance for  course correction for the restaurant industry. 

“Not only do we want our revenue to return to 2019 numbers, but really I think we want to make improvements on our business culture and climate overall,” Tressler said Wednesday during a virtual listening session with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. “I think it’s a tremendous opportunity.”

During the session, hosted by Main Street Alliance, a progressive small-business lobby, Tressler and other business owners said provisions in Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed 2021-23 budget could help restaurants and other small businesses who missed out on federal COVID-19 relief funding emerge from the pandemic in better shape than ever before. 

Wisconsin has "a tremendous opportunity" to improve life for small businesses as we emerge from the pandemic, Michelle…

Posted by UpNorthNews on Friday, April 9, 2021

That help would come not only through direct aid to businesses, they said, but also in the form of BadgerCare expansion and investments in childcare that would help businesses attract and maintain good employees.

“We know that supporting our small businesses takes more than just direct support,” Barnes said. “Also, we have to make sure that we support the health and we support the well-being of the people who make those small businesses function, whether it’s people who work there or the surrounding community.”

Evers’ budget proposal, which will likely be largely scrapped by the Republican-led Legislature, includes BadgerCare expansion through federal funding that would give an estimated 91,000 low-income Wisconsinites health coverage. Evers also proposed spending $140 million for childcare and $200 million on small business aid

RELATED: Check Out Evers’ Top Budget Priorities Before Republicans Gut Them

While businesses have received money from the federal CARES Act and American Rescue Plan and COVID-19 vaccinations are moving swiftly, small firms will need more help, said Dan Jacobs, co-owner of DanDan, a Milwaukee Chinese restaurant.

“I don’t think just vaccinations fix problems,” Jacobs said. “I don’t think that’s the end-all, be-all to the restaurant industry.”

He also said the restaurant industry cannot solely rely upon government help and that restaurateurs will need to work on self-improvement, whether that be doing away with tip-heavy employee compensation or shortening work weeks. But, the state government will play an important role in the next year of recovery, he said.

Sam Rikkers, WEDC’s chief operations officer, said addressing all angles is critical to the state’s recovery because “those variables, they just don’t exist in a vacuum.”

Rikkers also noted the state’s extreme racial disparities, which have become worse during the pandemic, including in the business community. Rikkers highlighted Evers’ proposal for a venture capital program that would set aside $20 million for businesses owned by women or people of color, or that are located in disadvantaged areas.

“We’ve heard from businesses all across the state that these are the types of investments that are necessary now to help our businesses and communities thrive,” Rikkers said.

Barnes challenged legislative Republicans, who portray themselves as business-friendly, to enact Evers’ policies.

“It’s a whole lot of rhetoric about who’s actually there to support our small businesses,” Barnes said. “This is time for them to show up, and there is no time to waste.”