Now, in a time of record job loss and forced
closures of countless beloved small busi- nesses deemed “non-essential” in the time of COVID-19, the little guy needs more help than ever. The organizations fighting for their survival are called Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), Main Street alliances and Downtown Development Authorities (DDAs). They often self-tax to provide funding for extra security, cleanup crews, market- ing, entertainment and other support of classic corridors, downtowns and urban business clusters.
In areas where sit-down restaurants are reduced to curb- side pickup or delivery only, in a challenging time when shops that relied on foot traffic are trying to adapt to online sales, BIDs, DDAs and Main Streets are using creativity and community collaboration to keep small businesses afloat.
Dionne Baux is director of UrbanMain, a program of the National Main Street Center (NMSC) to empower under- resourced older and historic neighborhood commercial districts to restore economic vitality and promote qual- ity of life. NMSC is a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“The primary concern has to be the health and wellbeing of people. That being said, if businesses are in a position to move aspects of their business to e-commerce shopping opportunities, that is certainly encouraged, as is deliv- ery, curbside pickup, (encouraging patrons to buy) gift cards, etc.,” she said. “But until stay-at-home orders and congregation limitations are lifted, it will be difficult for non-essential small businesses to sustain themselves dur- ing this time.”
Baux noted 66 percent of survey responders indicated a need to suspend some expenses in the interim while they are mandated to be closed. These typically consist of rents, utilities and other operating fees.
“Main Street programs should engage with city officials on programs at the local level, in which there may be influence and/or control over utility operations, parking fees, etc.,” the survey advises. “In addition, while small business operations are being negatively impacted dur- ing this time, property owners represent a key stakeholder group. Main Street programs are also encouraged to dia- logue with property owners as partners to help retain small business tenants, and continue as a connector and educator on programs at the federal level designed to sus- pend mortgage payments.”
Bill Fuller, co-founder and co-managing partner of the urban development company Barlington Group, has played a huge role in elevating Miami’s famous Calle Ocho in Little Havana from a careworn corridor to a vibrant center of art, culture and retail that draws nearly three million visitors per year. As one of the area’s largest landlords, and co-founder of the Little Havana Merchant Alliance, he and his tenants have been hit hard by Coro- navirus stay-at-home and closure-of-business orders.
Main Streets are using creativity and community collaboration.
The Ball & Chain, a food and beverage hotspot that has been written about in The New York Times, has retained 25 percent of its staff. Another Madroom concept, the revived historic Taquerias El Mexicano, also is operating with a reduced crew.
The Ball & Chain has a promotion that patrons get back 50 percent of money spent during the crisis, by submitting receipts, — toward purchases when the home of Latin food, music and culture fully reopens. There also is a promotion that $40 spent buys a $50 gift certificate and $80 buys a $100 plus a free t-shirt. The promotions generate buzz and much-needed revenue during the pandemic.
“I have found over 90 percent of our tenants, whether open or not, have come in saying ‘I can pay 20 percent, 30 percent’ — not saying ‘I’m giving you nothing.’ You know who your real friends are,” he said, noting his mom and pop tenants are making good faith efforts.
NMSC’s Baux said Main Street programs and BIDs are helping their retail constituents and customers navigate the changing environment, citing best practices exam- ples such as:
- Chicago’s Morgan Park Beverly Hills Association is connecting small businesses to local, state and federal resources. It’s marketing features local businesses that are providing curbside pickup, delivery services and online sales.
- Tenleytown Main Street in Washington, D.C., is pro- viding members with technical assistance to set up online sales and services while obtaining permits to support restaurant pick-up and carry-out zones. Ten- leytown is helping businesses apply for government grants and disaster assistance loans while issuing emer- gency small grants.
- In the San Diego area, the Leucadia 101, Encinitas 101 and Cardiff 101 Main Street organizations have a goal to raise $100,000 to provide grants to local small businesses. To create the Encinitas Support Fund, the trio is partnering with the Cardiff by the Sea Founda- tion and the Harbaugh Foundation.
- OurTownCoshocton,NMSC’spartnerinCoshocton, Ohio, helped two local businesses join forces to sew more than 1000 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) masks. The two mom and pop businesses — Mercan- tile on Main and Rose of Sharon Retreat — saw an increase in online and curbside pick-up sales.
“NMSC believes there will remain a craving, and perhaps due to social isolation, a greater appreciation for the social engagement aspects of shopping. From that stand point, the dynamic of experiential shopping may even expand,” Baux said of an ultimate silver lining.
“However, there will undoubtedly be some additional migration to e-commerce. As our survey shows, many small businesses (63 percent) have no e-commerce sales. This will need to change and traditional brick and mortar stores will need to build out a place-based and e-commerce experience for post-COVID-19 shoppers,” Baux advised. “There may be a call for more convenience-oriented shop- ping, such as home delivery and curbside, which may not disappear as consumers adapt to this experience.”
Georgia Petropoulos is the executive director of the Oakland Business Improvement District (OBID), which describes itself as Pittsburgh’s most ethnically diverse and lively neighborhood that is home to prestigious universities and museums; world-class hospitals; grand architecture; quaint coffee shops; international cuisine; and specialty shops.
“Like many cities across the country, our business district has been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and our business owners have put out a herculean effort for survival,” she said. “Restaurants shifted service hours and redesigned menus to focus on takeout and delivery. Business owners have been creative with new promo- tions such as Salúd Juicery Oakland’s ‘Cup of Goodness’ program where the public can purchase smoothies for hospital doctors and nurses.”
“Our business owners are the life of our community and they need our help,” Petropoulos continued.
She said the BID stays in constant communication with its district community — by phone, text, survey, website, e-newsletter blasts and social media — while researching and communicating COVID-19 crisis help that is avail- able. The BID promotes the message to the public that Oakland is open for business.
“With the universities moving to online learning and the closure of our museums and library, we saw a huge decline in the university student, faculty and staff customers and the visitor population so we focused our efforts on the hospitals and on area residents. In partnership with our hospitals, we set up a food delivery program called Sup- port Oakland, where restaurants gain access to deliver to hospital employees,” Petropoulos said.
“We are a dense urban district with no drive-through opportunities, but our restaurants have adapted wonder- fully. Many have removed tables and chairs to make room for customers waiting to maintain the required minimum 6-foot social distance inside while others with smaller spaces have restricted interior access and have set the tables up at the main entrance for quick and easy pick up,” she said.
Petropoulos said the Oakland and BIDs nationwide must create a new narrative of how density and the built envi- ronment impacts people, in respect to staying safe during a pandemic.
A new look for downtowns?
Charles Marohn is the founder and president of Strong Towns, a nonprofit making communities across the United States and Canada financially strong and resil- ient, and the author of “Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.”
“What the current crisis is exposing is not, as some com- mentators have suggested, some previously unknown flaw
He said when a local restaurant with a local landlord and a much more local supply chain cannot pay rent, it is in the interest of everyone involved to work it out. National chains that are announcing they cannot pay rent, “sets off a much more disruptive cascade of events that wipes out investors and jeopardizes bond markets.”
“Places with strong local economic ecosystems will endure and recover,” said Marohn. “The current crisis will also put a large strain on cities’ budgets, and this will be felt most acutely in those places where finances were already stretched by decades of low-returning development choices and deferred maintenance of overbuilt infrastructure.
“We’ve observed time and time again that the walkable, human scale, traditional pattern of development is the most financially productive approach to building human settlements, and these cities will be the most able, in the long recovery to come, to provide the services essential for their residents’ health and well-being.”
Tracy Sayegh Gabriel is an urbanist, planner and place- maker who serves as president and executive director of the Crystal City Business Improvement District, which enhances the vibrancy of Arlington — Virginia’s largest downtown.
“We are working with fitness studios and cultural insti- tutions in the neighborhood to develop a line-up of BID-sponsored virtual programming,” she said. “It is a lifeline for our small businesses that are struggling to make ends meet. These online events provide residents with new avenues to stay both mentally and physically healthy as they adjust to life spent predominantly at home.”
The BID has organized drives, produced informational webinars and launched a “Hometown Heroes” initiative that rewards the efforts of helpful community members with gift cards to local small businesses.
“We are actively encouraging and empowering the community to support those local businesses that have remained open for carry-out and delivery. We set up a webpage that aggregates operational information so that area residents can easily access it,” Gabriel said. “We have
Local support for small businesses
Robert Gibbs is a professional planner, landscape archi- tect, real estate advisor and author of “Principles of Urban Retail Planning.” Based in Birmingham, Mich., he has consulted on more than 1,000 projects spanning all 50 states, including retail evaluations of all design, plan- ning, parking, signage, management and policy issues to improve the shopper experience and improve sales.
“DDAs are essential for competitive shopping districts, especially now. Cities without DDAs will face a slower recovery than others,” he said of development authori- ties. “DDAs can offer marketing for restaurant carry-out, online shopping and especially their service businesses.
He said DDAs throughout the nation must prepare exten- sive post-recession/pandemic marketing plans to launch the moment things start to return to normal.
To endure the crisis, Gibbs said landlords must offer free rent for several months and then reduce rents to 10 per- cent of gross sales.
“There is a glut of vacant shopping centers and office parks, and they need to be repurposed into dense, walk- able, mixed-use centers,” he said. “As regional malls are closing, many of their prime retailers are seeking down- towns to remain in the market. There are opportunities for cities to attract those prime retailers if they implement a business recruitment plan.”
The BID quickly partnered with local restaurant owners to provide food for the social service providers within its boundaries. In one week, Tracy Chang (James Beard award nominee) and her team at PAGU made 900 meals for the shelters in Central Square. Chang quickly helped launch Off Their Plate, a nonprofit dedicated to restor- ing restaurant jobs and feeding the frontlines. It raised $2 million in a month.
The International Downtown Association underscores the importance of partnerships with local government, which can ensure quick turnaround on temporary rule changes to allow more ease of conducting business during COVID-19 restrictions. Downtown Santa Monica insti- tuted a temporary change in parking ordinances around restaurants to allow for easier pick up.
BIDS from Milwaukee to West Palm Beach have created lists of dozens of virtual events and activities to do, many powered by the local community. Milwaukee Down- town is working with museums, performing arts centers and universities to stream performances and lectures to strengthen community ties online.
Chad Emmerson, president and chief executive officer of Downtown Huntsville, Inc., said a quick lesson learned is that small businesses able to quickly evolve in crisis will do better.
Emmerson said it is often easier and less expensive to have groceries delivered and cook at home, so small busi- ness owners should challenge themselves and their teams to make the curbside delivery a simple yet fun experience.
“This means that you need to make restaurant take-out more than a commodity. It needs to offer an emotional reprieve from the isolation we’re all experiencing,” he said. “Can you bring the meal to their car curbside in a unique way? Guests are looking for a human connection and a reason to smile. You can do that while still deliver- ing a predictable and consistent experience.”
Level the playing field
Kennedy Smith is a senior researcher with the Independent Business Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit that champions the need for humanly scaled institutions and economies. She said Congress, state and local governments, foundations, civic institutions, crowd- funders and customers must get cash to small, locally owned businesses to keep them afloat — because most have less than a month of cash reserves on hand.
“It is vital to level the playing field between small, locally owned businesses and big box stores. Main Street
Smith said small, locally owned businesses are finding very innovative ways to keep moving forward:
- A hair salon in Alexandria, Va., is delivering a small bottle of hair coloring solution, plus some shampoo and conditioner, to customer homes, then following up with Zoom meetings to walk them through the process of touching up their roots.
- A bar in San Antonio is offering drive-through cock- tails and bottled beer and wine. With a $30 purchase, customers get a free hot dog from the hot dog stand next door and a free bottle of Stella Artois.
- A personal chef and caterer in Metuchen, N.J., now makes family-style meals serving four to six people, and, when delivering them, offers to deliver products from other downtown businesses as well.
- AprofessionalphotographerinCincinnatiisdonating her services to other small businesses to take photos of their merchandise for their websites.
The Cherry Creek North (CCN) BID, the first BID cre- ated in the state of Colorado, represents a neighborhood five minutes north of downtown Denver that touts the largest and most diverse shopping space between Chicago
“It is imperative that we provide accurate information about available grant and loan programs to our constituents. We have created a Slack portal and opened it to the entire business community,” said Jenny Starkey, senior director of Marketing & Community Relations for CCN BID.
The BID invited critical resource providers to the virtual platform to ensure businesses have direct communication with representatives from the mayor’s office, city coun- cil, the Denver Metro Economic Development Office, Denver Chamber, Cherry Creek Chamber, Small Busi- ness Administration and Denver Police.
“Small businesses have long been the backbone of our national economy and of Cherry Creek North,” said Nick LeMasters, CCN BID president and CEO. “With the largest concentration of independent business in the inter- mountain west, Cherry Creek North has long served as an example of a unique, diverse and highly personalized neighborhood experience. It is our highest priority to ensure that our community retains relevancy in this ever- changing market so when the time comes to welcome back those that visit, work and play in Cherry Creek North, we can do so as a strong and resilient neighborhood.”
Source: “Commerce In the Time of Coronavirus”