MARION -- Crown Brew Coffee owners Joshua Benitone and Jared Gravatt have not even opened the doors of their new Marion location, but they're already making an impact on the business community.
"We were set to open right when the COVID shelter in place came out," said Benitone. "We had some construction delays or we would be laying off staff right now."
Intent on supporting their fellow business owners, the pair made sure to visit various businesses, going in to buy food and products, supporting the "shop local" call to arms.
"People were still having to lay off staff," said Benitone. "When the business model is built on cash flow, buying a taco is not going to save it."
Benitone remembers exactly when the crisis gave a "gut punch."
"It was March 19," he said. "We went to La Galeria to pick up lunch. The owner, Laura, just a beautiful person, she looked at us and said, 'this has been so hard ... only six months in and I had to lay off the entire staff.'"
Benitone said as he and Gravatt sat in their car eating lunch, they looked at one another and decided, "enough is enough," and knew they needed to do something.
That was Thursday. By Monday, the pair had a plan and wasted no time putting it in action.
With backgrounds in marketing and events they decided they could put something together.
"Normally, you would pull people together for an event, but right now we can't do that," said Benitone.
So, they built on Marion Cultural and Civic Center executive director Josh Benson's idea of the "Empty Concert Series," and will host a livestream telethon.
Set for April 3 at 6 p.m., "Marion United" will be a four-hour event featuring local artists, entertainers, and community figures sharing hope and encouragement.
"In a time where so many are struggling, there is an amazing opportunity for the citizens, churches, businesses, and organizations to unite and help them through this," said Benitone.
There will be opportunities to donate to Marion United during and after the event, with the funds being used to provide grants to small, locally owned businesses in Marion.
He and Gravatt contacted Marion Mayor Mike Absher, who immediately pledged city support, a promise that was approved at Wednesday's council meeting.
Absher loves the idea.
"Basically, it's a quick way to get money in the pockets of the mom-and-pop businesses, especially those that have been shut down by the governor's order," he said. "We can rally around these businesses and provide a lifeline."
While the loss of business tax revenue will be devastating for many area municipalities, Absher praised his predecessors, Robert Butler and Anthony Rinella, for their foresight in ensuring Marion can survive economically.
"They were diligent and disciplined enough to set money aside," he said. "It will impact our reserves but we're going to be OK."
He pointed out that others will be struggling, but cited Marion United as a sort of beacon.
"Leadership is about showing people what to do," he said. "My hope is that with Marion United, our community can be an example and put out a template so other communities can do something like this for their businesses."
Benitone said helping these businesses is essential for what he called the "heart and soul" of the community. "This isn't about bad business decisions or capitalism," he said. "It's the result of a crisis.
Benitone and Gravatt have a goal to raise at least $100,000 and only four days in, have already secured nearly half of that and are confident they will meet or exceed their goal when Marion United goes live.
"When we look back on COVID-19," said Benitone, "we (Marion) will be remembered for how we came together with a solution to lift up our community during a time of uncertainty.
"We are stronger united than we are isolated on our own."
• Learn more about MARION UNITED at www.marion-united.com.