Every day, seven days a week, Dietrich White goes to Walmart and buys four cases of bottled water. For almost two years, she has continued this daily ritual because she is afraid to let the kids who attend the two child daycare centers she runs in Flint, Michigan, drink the tap water.
Spending $25 a day to ensure the 100 kids who cycle through both centers have safe water to drink strains her business's bottom line, White says. But the Flint water crisis has made running a business less about profit and more about doing the right thing.
"You can imagine how much water we have to use," White says. She says she started using bottled water when she heard that the city was going to switch from Detroit water to Flint River water in April 2014. "It's an added expense, but it's a crazy time for our city and we're just trying to keep our kids safe."
But White's story is hardly unique in Flint. For almost two years, water pipes have been leeching lead into the city's drinking water, because the Flint River's acidic water corroded the old lead pipes that represent a large portion of Flint's water delivery infrastructure. President Obama called a federal state of emergency on January 16, 2016, which yielded over $30 million in aid, bottled water, and filters for Flint residents. Although a new study finds that the presence of lead is less widespread than previously thought, and daily water testing shows the amount of lead in parts per million is going down each day, the impact of two years of unsafe drinking water will continue to hit local businesses hard, and for some time. Some are dealing with added costs of business, and all of them are dealing with a PR nightmare.
Tim Herman, the CEO of the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce, says that the city's businesses have suffered an "overall decrease and loss of business." The Chamber is currently collecting data from its 1,200 members to quantify the financial impact of the water crisis on the local economy. That economy includes Luke Leffel, who is trying to start his first business, water crisis or not.
Leffel is about to open the doors of his coffee shop, Wild Root Coffee, on Court Street in Flint's College and Cultural neighborhood. He cannot afford to spend a couple thousand dollars on a filtering system. While the city is giving out tap filters to residential homes, businesses need to outfit their shops with filters at their own cost. Instead of waiting until he can afford a filtering system, Leffel found a bottled water delivery company that he can afford in the meantime.
"Initially, just because of the cost, we'll buy the bottled water to make our coffee. Even with a filtration system, I don't trust Flint's water," he says. "You can't make good coffee with bad water, and my first priority is make sure my customers are safe."
He says buying bottled water to make pour-over coffee and tea will only cost $150 a week. It sounds crazy to start a café that makes all of its coffee with bottled water, but what Leffel's most afraid of is the sentiment of fear that has taken hold in his city.
"The business owners in Flint say things have slowed down, and folks are scared. There are a lot of different stories out there, from lead to Legionnaires' disease, and everyone is unsure about the economic outlook," he says. "The scary thing is, we don't know how long-term this issue is going to be. But the cool thing is that there is a strong feeling of hope, hope that we will bounce back from the crisis."
Fighting the damage of perception
Though it appears the worst of the health danger is past, a bigger challenge will be overcoming the lingering fear that the water troubles have caused. "Most businesses have filtering systems and most of the water has been tested as safe, especially downtown, where we have new pipes and infrastructure," Herman says. "But now it's a marketing issue. Perception is reality."
To fight the negative perception and loss of business, the Chamber is starting an initiative to give out "safe water certified" window signs to businesses that have filtering systems and have tested negative for lead.
Robb Klaty owns three different restaurants and a brewery in Flint. Fortunately, he outfitted all four businesses with water filters since well before the water crisis started in 2014. He took water filtration seriously because water is vital to the success of his first business, Flint Crepe Company, which he opened in 2011, and his last establishment, Tenacity Brewing, which brews its own beer. Looking back, he considers himself lucky to be ahead of the curve. Still, he tests each restaurant monthly and has never detected lead or other contaminants. The tests are $20 each for the three restaurants and $500 for brewery (it's a more intensive test), so the cost is not what has impacted his bottom line, it's the wide-spread fear of anything that doesn't come from a sealed bottle.
"Our customers are worried. It's a big issue and every new person who walks through our doors will ask about my water," Klaty says. He says he has seen a single digit dip in his business year-over-year, and has noticed a down tick in number of patrons. Although the winter is usually slow, he says the water crisis had put a cloud over Flint's local restaurants.
"There is a negative impact because I feel people are not coming out as much as they used to because they don't trust the water," Klaty says. "I am incredibly fortunate, for we're only seeing single digit decrease and Flint is in a full-blown crisis."
The negative impact of perception is extending even past Flint's borders. Koegel's Meats, which makes bockwurst, bratwurst, bologna, and frankfurters, is a 100-year-old family business that sits in Flint Township, an important distinction because the Township is not connected to Flint's water system and was not affected by the water crisis. (The township's water always came from Lake Huron without interruption.) But once the fears of lead-laced water intensified in 2015, John Koegel, who is the third-generation Koegel to run the family business, started getting calls from customers wondering if their hotdogs are packed in Flint River water. The answer is no.
As the hysteria took over Flint this winter, Koegel was overwhelmed by the number of calls and Facebook messages asking about the water. Everyone wanted to know whether or not their meat was safe to eat. To answer everyone's questions, he posted an announcement on Koegel's website and Facebook page: "Koegel Meats is NOT connected to the City of Flint Water System. We wish to assure our customers that the processing of Koegel Meat products has not been affected by the City of Flint water crisis."
Although Koegel's water wasn't impacted by the crisis, Koegel says his company still suffered. The company sells 13 million pounds of meat and makes $30 million in sales a year, but he says his numbers in 2015 were "soft." He says it's always hard to pinpoint a specific cause, but he believes this year's single-digit dip is due to the water crisis.
"If you use the one-to-10 rule, that means if one person calls then 10 other people are thinking about it. Ninety-nine percent of our sales are in Michigan, so people think about Flint and then assume Koegel's uses the same water. It's guilt by association," he says.
Koegel is now on the offensive and trying to put distance between the company and the city's water problems, but is finding it's difficult. Flint's water crisis has gone viral. Koegel says the word on the street is that all businesses are hurting in some way.
"We're all affected just by association. The news has gotten so big that when people think of Flint, they think of lead poisoning."
This is just the latest setback for a city that has seen its fare share of disasters. Once a bustling community in the 1950s, Flint was plunged into economic, social, and financial devastation in the 1980s, when General Motors cut 30,000 jobs from its local manufacturing plant. But in the past five years, the city experienced a renaissance. Investors and developers have poured $400 million into Flint's downtown revitalization--abandoned factories have been transformed into loft apartments, the old Flint Journal printing facility is now a fancy farmers' market, and a rush of new businesses and restaurants have sprung up along each side of Saginaw Street, the city's red brick main drag. The city has risen up from 30 years of decline, Herman says, and he believes the renaissance will not cede to the water crisis.
"We are a resilient people," he says. "This community is amazing in terms of what it had to go through over the years--the loss of auto jobs, going through the recession, and now the water crisis. We're still here. And we're still open for business."