The boards are coming down from the plate glass windows, the “welcome back” signs are popping up in storefronts and the outdoor tables are filling up with diners and coffee drinkers. Main Street is coming back. Slowly.
More than two years on, the impact of COVID still is being felt. In a proclamation declaring May 1 through 7 as National Small Business Week, President Joe Biden stated, “Today, more than 32 million small businesses employ almost half of America’s workforce and represent the heart and soul of countless communities. When I first took office, the pandemic had devastated America’s small business community. Hundreds of thousands of small businesses had closed, main streets were shuttered and millions more Americans were out of work through no fault of their own. Even with the creativity and resilience of small business owners and workers, COVID-19 took an incalculable toll on so many lives and livelihoods.”
Matt Wagner, chief program officer of Main Street America — a planning organization that specializes in community revitalization, historic preservation and redevelopment — said the pain was not distributed evenly: “If you’re a small business in a big downtown business district and you depend on the business travel and office worker markets, you’re not faring as well as many small towns and suburbs that have more residential shopping populations.”
There’s broad agreement, however, that robust small business activity is crucial to a full economic recovery. Those efforts take many forms, from individual owners’ resolve to keep going to government aid, which can range from federal dollars to local grants of as little as $500. From Norwalk, Connecticut’s 2022 COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program to West Bend, Wisconsin’s Main Street Bounceback Grants, explicitly awarded to small businesses that fill vacant storefronts, plenty of incentive exists to get small businesses firing on all cylinders.
In Pittsboro, North Carolina, a rural county seat west of the Research Triangle, Mary DeMare, general manager of two-shop retail operation New Horizons Trading Co., said a $3,500 grant from the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation gave her downtown store a pre-Christmas boost, funding additional hours for December. The impact on profits was negligible, but it went a long way in terms of community goodwill. “I had somebody tell me the other week how much they appreciated the extended hours around Christmas, and it’s April, so it had an impact,” she said, adding she also had considered applying for the North Carolina Business Recovery Grant Program, a similar, state-level program that disburses one-time grants of as much as $500,000 to help businesses damaged by COVID.
More funds may be necessary as migration from bigger cities fills Pittsboro’s central business district with professional services tenants. “At the same time we’re trying to revitalize our downtown, it’s getting un-retailed,” DeMare said. “If you’re a small retailer, you can’t afford what a lawyer would pay for that space.”
Chatham County Economic Development Corporation communications specialist Ann Fitts said the total amount of money disbursed wasn’t huge but allowed businesses to refit their spaces, upgrade their computer systems and make other improvements. “A little of it went a long way,” she said. “There’s definitely been an impact.”
There’s also growing awareness in commercial real estate circles that well-planned, deliberately selected tenant rosters can play a meaningful role in positioning individual centers and Main Street shopping districts for success. Cushman & Wakefield managing director Alanna Loeffler said local demand is a major influence on community redevelopment and leasing. “We’re always hearing about community localization and customization,” she said. “It’s been interesting to see what local needs look like.”
That can mean turning shopping malls into spaces where customers can do activities, such as fitness centers, plus strong demand for food-and-beverage operations. The pandemic migration to the suburbs, for example, has pushed demand for quick-service restaurants beyond of urban cores, she said. That demographic shift also is encouraging smaller brands, many of them direct-to-consumer operations establishing brick-and-mortar locations, to test storefronts in different shopping environments.
Sizable infusions of private equity and venture capital are helping retailers open brick-and-mortar, she said. “After the last two years, we’re seeing all this vacant space and all this capital going into new brands,” she said. She added that the transformation and revival will not happen overnight. “You have to look in terms of foot traffic and understand what it takes to succeed, and you really have to give it time.”
Some developers see local culture as the most important component of revived Main Streets. Doug Wiele, president and founding partner of Foothill Partners, a developer that works in Sierra Nevada and other parts of Northern California, said understanding urban economics, merchandising and land planning, then cultivating close relationships with local merchants has proved a successful formula for upscale, mixed-used developments. “We don’t really look for chain stores,” he said. “We go looking for local all-stars – the great local restaurant and cafe operators, the local merchants who can be part of a dense Main Street culture.”
In the right locations, in communities where shoppers want a bit of connection and more personal experience, Wiele says his company’s approach is akin to reinstating the agora, the central public space of ancient Greek city-states. “We like to be out, and we like things that are relevant to our lives,” he said. It’s the oldest of business models: a defensive strategy against e-commerce and an offensive strategy to be relevant to customers.”
By Will Swarts
Executive Editor, ICSC Small Business Center