GUEST ARTICLE – Driving Economic Recovery Downtown: Eight Responses to the Impact of COVID-19 on Main Streets Across America

The Guest Article for REVITALIZATION was written by Jenna Temkin.

Even as economies have begun to reopen, downtowns and commercial districts across the country will continue to face obstacles to remaining resilient during the pandemic. Just as many small businesses have pivoted in response to COVID-19, Main Street programs and commercial district associations have also begun to experiment and implement creative programs to address immediate needs and support long-term economic recovery.

Main Street programs have served as the innovation centers for downtown and neighborhood commercial district revitalization efforts for years. And now, given the impacts of COVID-19, that same innovative thinking is needed to guide downtowns and small businesses through this crisis.

Earlier this summer, we at Main Street America provided eight Main Street programs with grants of $10,000 each through The Grills Fund for Main Street Revitalization to help fund promising revitalization efforts to address the current and/or legacy impacts of COVID-19.

From small business training and technology to gap services programs, these ideas represent a range of creative approaches that can be replicated in commercial districts across the country to support small businesses and the economic vitality of downtowns. You’ll learn more about these ideas below.

Entrepreneur and Small Business Support and Training Projects

Left: Laurens, SC, Credit: Main Street Laurens; Center: Harrisonburg, VA, Credit: Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance; Right: Gallup, NM. Credit: Cayla Nimmo.

Bricks & Clicks: Harrisonburg, VA

Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance realizes it will take both digital and physical store improvements to help their small businesses survive.

They’re boosting local online shopping and building consumer confidence in returning downtown (once it’s safe to do so) by implementing a three-part small business assistance program, Bricks & Clicks.

After a training on ecommerce best practices, the 20 participating business owners applied to get matched with local technical assistance experts, who will help them identify solutions to challenges and prepare grant project proposals.

Grant-eligible projects can either address public health improvements at physical locations (the Bricks) or make digital enhancements (the Clicks) to boost online brand identity and e-commerce.

Pop-Up Entrepreneur Resource Center: Gallup, NM

Gallup, NM is putting a new spin on the typical entrepreneur resource center model. While its Coal Avenue Commons Resource Center will provide established and aspiring entrepreneurs with space, resource connections, skills building training, and entrepreneur-focused boot camps, it will also spark the rehabilitation or reuse of properties in the district.

By popping up in underutilized or vacant properties and providing space for meetings, working, and pop-up businesses, Coal Avenue Commons will advertise and demonstrate potential uses for these locations in the district. Gallup MainStreet Arts & Cultural District is rolling out the program in a digital format to provide resources to business owners and is planning to grow into its desired physical shape once it is deemed safe to do so.

Technology Audit and Small Business Training: Laurens, SC

In the wake up COVID-19, Main Street Laurens saw a need to help their small businesses develop a stronger online presence in recovery and well into the future. They are launching a technology audit and small business training program. The audit will provide businesses with a comprehensive assessment of current technology, its effectiveness, and practical strategies to grow an online presence.

Once the audit process is complete, Main Street Laurens will produce a marketing checklist and host a workshop to provide an overview of marketing concepts for district businesses. After the workshop, small businesses can apply to receive one-on-one assistance and participate in sessions about marketing concepts.

Gap Services Programs

Left: Donaldsonville, LA. Credit: Donaldsonville Downtown Development District. Right: Kendall Whittier District. Credit: Kendall Whittier Main Street Program.

Promoting Social Distancing and Entrepreneurship: Donaldsonville, LA

In Donaldsonville, social distancing has been a challenge due to a lack of public transportation and delivery services. During the pandemic, many residents have shopped often and waited in long lines, which has contributed to positive COVID-19 cases.

Donaldsonville Downtown Development District is hoping to make it easier for residents to social distance and inspire entrepreneurship by investing in a business that creates a localized delivery service for food, groceries, prescription drugs, and other essential needs. The district will hold a virtual business competition where entrepreneurs will present a business plan and virtual pitch to a panel of judges.

The winning entrepreneur will be awarded $10,000 to start the delivery service, with the owner contributing up to $5,000 of their own investments. Donaldsonville has already launched a free partnership training program to help local entrepreneurs prepare their business plans ahead of the competition.

Rent Relief: Kendall Whittier District, Tulsa, OK

With either no income or severely limited income, many businesses in Kendall Whittier were struggling to pay rent to property owners. To keep businesses viable, Kendall Whittier Main Street (KWMS) offered a Rent Relief Program for business owners who either pay rent or mortgage on a Kendall Whittier property.

Once awarded, the grant paid rent directly to the landlord that month. For businesses that own their property, the grant paid the business and requested proof of mortgage payment for the month. By paying rent, KWMS allowed business owners can focus their limited money and attention on strategies to keep their businesses afloat.

With additional funds raised by local foundations and corporations, Kendall Whittier Main Street disbursed 31 grants to support district businesses with partial or total rent relief for three months. None of the businesses that received the grant had closed.

Community Engagement

Downtown Wooster, OH. Credit: Janet Welty.

Fostering Safety and Community: Wooster, OH

With businesses at risk of closing and the Main Street program’s event revenue slashed, Main Street Wooster came up with a creative solution to promote safety, inject cash downtown, and encourage a sense of community through a program called Wooster Comeback.

Main Street Wooster is currently developing local health and safety training videos for downtown businesses. Once merchants complete the trainings, they will receive a Certificate of Completion to display in their windows to boost residents’ confidence in returning downtown.

Main Street Wooster has also scheduled a drive-in movie event series, where vehicles will be led on a designated route from downtown through selected neighborhoods, ending at a pop-up Drive-In Movie Theater, along with food trucks and booths from brick-and-mortar eateries. The event will raise funds for the Main Street program and drive spending at local businesses.

Technology and Online Platforms

Left: New Bern, NC. Credit: Swiss Bear, Inc. Right: Downtown Niles, MI. Credit: Niles Main Street.

A Digital Marketplace: New Bern, NC

The Bear Towne Marketplace will provide a digital one-stop shopping platform that will help Downtown New Bern retailers reach customers during recovery and well into the future.

The marketplace will provide convenient shopping for customers when they are unable to visit physical locations and allows retailers to sell inventory safely. The platform also gives merchants without an ecommerce site an opportunity to sell goods, while allowing merchants with existing platforms an opportunity to expand their online presence. The Swiss Bear, Inc. website will launch in the beginning of November in time for the holiday season.

Combining Storytelling and Ecommerce: Niles, MI

To bring businesses into the digital age and encourage residents to support locally owned establishments, Niles Main Street will create an online sales portal and marketing campaign for their local merchants called Meet ME Downtown in Niles.

Niles has been collecting personal stories of their small business owners and plans to repurpose this content for the website, which will be accompanied by links to webstores (for those that have them). Along with the website, Niles Main Street will create promotional materials for the campaign.

About the Author

Jenna Temkin is Associate Manager of Marketing and Outreach at the National Main Street Center.

She supports efforts to amplify the National Main Street Center and the work of 1,600 local Main Street programs across the country.

Jenna is also responsible for media relations, marketing, and other external engagement efforts. She holds a BA in Anthropology & Sociology from Knox College.

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