The Greenbrier resort has shut its doors for at least the next month, numerous shops and restaurants are feeling the pinch, and other industries may be teetering on the brink of survival as the novel coronavirus spreads.
According to the Greater Greenbrier COVID-19 Task Force, approximately 20 tests for the virus have been conducted in the county, and all results are negative.
But the local economy is suffering in ways large and small as employers scale back in an era of social distancing and self-quarantine measures meant to stem the pandemic that has taken thousands of lives worldwide.
Gary McComas is afraid, but not of falling ill.
Instead he’s looking at the prospect of his business collapsing under the economic pressure of the moment, coupled with previous hits from the U.S. trade war with China, snarls of government red tape and slow-paying customers.
President of Appalachian Electronic Instruments (AEI), one of a dwindling group of high-tech companies for which the Greenbrier Valley was once known, McComas bluntly told The Register-Herald in a telephone interview Friday, “I’m in a critical situation. If we don’t get help soon, we’re afraid we’ll have a massive layoff or have to close the doors completely.”
McComas takes great pride in the work done at the 66-year-old company, where he worked as an engineer in the 1990s and to which he returned in 2012, before being named president three years ago.
AEI manufactures quality control and monitoring systems for textiles and safety and monitoring devices for the mining, railroad, health care and nuclear industries, and performs contract electro-mechanical assembly manufacturing.
“Our primary business is textile machinery,” McComas said. “Almost every piece of denim in the world, the yarn in it went through our equipment. That’s our claim to fame.”
The company used to export quite a lot of that equipment to China, McComas said, noting that the trade war “shut that down.” Still among AEI’s active clients are firms in Turkey, Brazil, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Recently, AEI had been working on a shipment bound for Turkey that totaled between $70,000 and $80,000, McComas said. And the company that had placed the order “pays 100 percent on shipment,” he noted. Then he received word that the Turkish company had closed down until April 9 due to the pandemic, canceling the order.
That kind of thing has become typical since the virus began to spread, he said.
“Companies quit spending on capital equipment and improvements when cash flow gets tight,” he said.
“My orders have all fallen off a cliff, and my customers aren’t paying what they owe me,” McComas said. “I’m struggling to stay in business. I don’t have a huge cash reserve.”
He reached out to U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s office by filling out an online form, but was, if anything, even more discouraged after getting off the phone with staff in her office Friday morning. While Capito’s staffers were “concerned and helpful,” McComas said, “The situation is so fluid, they’re struggling, too.”
They referred him to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), which is offering economic injury disaster loans to businesses that can show they’ve suffered losses linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the requirements for those SBA loans are an “acceptable” credit history, demonstration of ability to repay the loan and collateral.
McComas said all of that information would take him weeks to put together and that the SBA had advised that it would take five or six weeks beyond that to process the loan.
Those are weeks that AEI and its 38 employees don’t have, McComas said.
“All of our jobs are in peril,” he said. “These jobs I’ve been fighting to hold onto will be gone. There are people who’ve worked here 20, 30 years or more. One lady has worked here since 1971.”
McComas is also more than willing to make adjustments in his production to tailor it to current pressing needs in the community, telling Register-Herald videographer Jenny Harnish, “I could manufacture (protective) face masks here, but I need some kind of help so I can keep the doors open and keep jobs.”
McComas acknowledged that the SBA may be his company’s only hope, but said the federal agency is flawed.
“The SBA program is geared toward larger small businesses, not the truly small business,” he said.
The SBA defines a small business as one that has a maximum of 250 employees or a maximum of 1,500 employees, depending on the industry. While a business with fewer than 40 employees, like AEI, can be quite viable, it doesn’t have the ability without assistance to weather a disaster like the one now confronting the Fairlea manufacturer.
“It’s day by day right now,” McComas said. “We’re trying to get orders out — very few orders. And we’re trying to get paid on our accounts receivable.”
AEI has taken all of the precautions recommended to protect against COVID-19 exposure in the workplace, and McComas said none of his employees have shown any signs of illness. A ban on visitors, encouraging social distancing, propping doors open to bring in fresh air and having plenty of hand sanitizer available are all measures that have been taken at the plant, McComas noted.
“The Greenbrier Valley has been a high-tech area for years,” he said. “But we’re slowly losing companies — like ABB, for example. This is a good place to live and run a business. It’s a shame we’re losing our high-tech industries.”
McComas just hopes his business doesn’t join the roster of the Greenbrier Valley’s high-tech losses.