UNI instructor's campaign supports local businesses during COVD-19

UNI instructor Heath Wilken


In early March, before mandated bar and restaurant closures and social distancing guidelines brought the Cedar Valley economy to a grinding halt, University of Northern Iowa business and manufacturing instructor Heath Wilken could see that the looming COVD-19 pandemic would spell trouble for local small businesses.

So, he decided to do something about it. On March 15, he started the #CedarValleyStrong movement, a social media and business outreach campaign designed to bring awareness to area small businesses and encourage local shopping.

“I realized this is going to happen fast and these places are going to get hit real hard,” said Wilken, who graduated from UNI in 2004. “That afternoon, I started the campaign on my website and social media, and it took off from there.”

The campaign  began on the website of Wilken’s business, Cedar Falls Laser Engraving, but quickly grew to its own website, www.cedarvalleystrong.com, and Facebook page, which currently has more than 2,200 likes. The website features over 250 local businesses and includes options for buying e-gift cards and a virtual tipping jar so customers can support their favorite servers.

For Jenni Stevenson, co-owner of Hick’s Place, a Cedar Falls-based outdoor recreation company, the e-gift cards have been an important boost in these lean times. Her business has already accumulated almost $400 in sales.

“I cried when I found out about that,” Stevenson said. “I thought, ‘ wow, they thought of us.’ That means so much. It gave me a little hope that we can keep our American Dream alive.”

Cedar Valley Strong’s social media and news presence - the effort has been featured several times in local media outlets - has also helped businesses spread the word about their services and reach new customers.

“Being able to partner with somebody who has such a reach has gotten a lot of attention to small businesses in downtown Waterloo. It broadened their reach and introduced them to new customers,” said Jessica Rucker, executive director of Main Street Waterloo. “It’s been a very positive thing and the efforts behind it and the organizations they’ve partnered with have helped catapult this.”

Mark Toms, owner of Brown’s Shoes in Cedar Falls, said Cedar Valley Strong has led to an increase in his Facebook and Instagram followers and he hopes the increased exposure will help boost business when the coronavirus shutdown ends.

“What (Wilken) has done is fantastic,” Toms said. “The way he’s incorporating everyone and everybody, it’s banding everyone together to hopefully survive this and come together stronger when we come out at the end of this.”

Wilken’s effort has also inspired and brought attention to other local businesses helping the community through the COVD-19 struggle.

Convey Sign Solutions offered dozens of free signs with the Cedar Valley Strong logo for restaurants to advertise that they are still open for carryout and delivery. 

Mersim’s Kitchen, a food truck offering Bosnian cuisine, has provided hundreds of free meals to the community and has received a boost of attention and support thanks to the Cedar Valley Strong movement.

Wilken’s own company manufactured and donated 700 plastic clips that keep the facemasks strings off the ears of healthcare workers, preventing the painful chafing that wearing the masks through 12-hours shifts can produce.

“It’s hit a chord, that for sure,” Wilken, who has been an instructor at UNI for the last six years, said. “I was just trying to do something. It’s taken hours every day, but it’s fun and the interaction is why I can keep devoting time to it. We get emails and phone calls daily of people sincerely thanking us.”

Rucker said that she’s heard from businesses who are getting customers from areas they never were before.

“I’ve seen business owners break down in tears just because of the support and seeing the community coming together,” Rucker said. “It’s great to have this be Cedar Valley Strong, not Cedar Falls Strong or Waterloo Strong. It shows that all of us are coming together and supporting each other.”