The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and a summer of social justice unrest have contributed to a growing frustration. Many nonpartisan national organizations whose missions are to act as liaisons between the federal government and state and local governments are stymied.
Patrice Frey, president and CEO of Main Street America — a program that coordinates economic development and preservation activities for thousands of communities across the country — describes how the economic impact of the coronavirus is hitting downtown America. “We are seeing where city and state budgets are under tremendous stress, and that’s why so many states and cities have been so active in appealing to Congress for budget relief; and I — and many others, I think — find it very unfortunate that Congress is not able to reach any sort of a deal on a relief package because those dollars are going to be critical to helping those communities recover, and to really continue to respond to the COVID crisis.
“At the Main Street level, what we’re starting to see is that our state Main Street programs and our local programs are threatened because, in the case of states, most of these programs are very reliant on state funding. In fact, the majority of them are housed in state government; and at the local level there is typically more diversity in terms of funding sources available, but every single one of those lines of funding is really under stress right now. We’ve been following it very, very closely, and unfortunately, the folks that we work with in Washington really don’t see a path to legislation at this point, until some sort of lame-duck session, or until after the first of the year.”
We quickly made our codes for our business community lenient.
However, while proposed economic recovery relief packages are being punted around in Congress, small towns and municipalities aren’t waiting idly on the sidelines. Funds not forthcoming from the federal government are being sought through more creative means. Collaborations with NGOs, nonprofits and public-private partnerships (P3s) are using traditional methods in these non-traditional times to distribute money already received from the CARES act, and looking for financial support from more direct funding mechanisms for future recovery and rebuilding.
“I can tell you that in Burnsville, when the public health crisis arrived, we quickly made our codes for our business community lenient,” says Elizabeth Kautz, mayor of the Minneapolis suburban city of 60,000 and current president of the Conference of U.S. Mayors. “We allowed our restaurants to increase their footprint by using their parking lots for outside [social distancing] seating.
We turned to members of our community to raise funds for a small business COVID-19 support fund.
“I worked with our U.S. Conference of Mayors to utilize our Partner America program with American Management Inc. to help our small businesses navigate through the financial challenges, by having experts review their financial position and to put in place a business plan to navigate through the crisis, and how to use their government funds like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL). All free to our businesses.
“When we finally received our share of the CARES Act dollars, we shared $1.5 million with our businesses and nonprofits. I believe as we continue to navigate through this public health crisis, economic crisis and social justice crisis, we have to work together and use all the resources available to us [not just funds] to help our businesses put in place business plans to help them to move through to thriving again.”
Small towns, initially thought to be better protected from the virus, aren’t immune from its grip. Charlevoix (population 2,500) is a resort town in northern Michigan that has been a major port for lumber and tourists for over a century. Ernest Hemingway spent his summers there as a child, and Chicago mob bosses sought refuge in Charlevoix during Prohibition. Its economy is largely tourism and travel based — two industries hardest hit by the self-quarantine restrictions of the virus.
Main Street organizations have been leaders to make sure that people of color who are smallbusiness owners are represented.
“Here in Charlevoix, we immediately focused in on gathering info and documenting the state of our small businesses within the wake of COVID-19 mandates and closures,” says Lindsey Dotson, executive director of Charlevoix Main Street DDA. “Once we got a grasp on how tough it really was for folks, we turned to members of our community to raise funds for a small-business COVID-19 support fund. We saw donations large and small from all sectors of our community and also received a grant from our local foundation to support our small businesses.
“We are in the midst of gathering updated information from our business community about how their outlook has changed after a very busy summer and fall. If the need is still present, we intend on doing another round of fundraising to award additional grants out to our small-business community. We are now in the business of keeping as many doors open as possible in our downtown. We had been, but now there is an acute focus on retention that is stronger than ever.”
Fair housing equity, business opportunity equality and inclusion are at the heart of NAR’s community development efforts.
2020 has been a year of multiple issues, to be sure, and the social unrest played out on the streets of this country has placed a new focus on how communities will rebuild, rebalance and recover, economically. Fair housing equity, business opportunity equality and inclusion are at the heart of NAR’s urban design and community development efforts. That’s compatible with local initiatives.
“I think we’ve seen some examples where Main Street organizations, in many cases, have really been the leaders in convening the community conversation around race, and having open conversations about how to make sure that downtowns are really for everyone, and that people of color who are small-business owners are represented and that they have paths to entrepreneurship, that they have paths to mentorship, and that they have access to seed funding and capital to continue to expand and support their businesses,” says Frey.
“I do think we’ve seen some positive momentum there. It’s an incredibly important moment, and I think many are beginning to recognize the way in which communities of color haven’t been represented downtown — either as shoppers or visitors or as business owners — and engaging in conversations and thinking very constructively about how to change that.”
Frey cites Athens, Tenn., a town halfway between Knoxville and Chattanooga, as a community taking a proactive approach to racial equity and opportunity issues.
“In the wake of the death of George Floyd, I was led to gather community leaders together — our city manager, chief of police, county mayor, county sheriff, three African American leaders, pastor/leader of the ministerial association, a member of Athens Thrive, and myself — and have a conversation about race relations in our community. This two-hour Zoom conversation led to planning a bigger conversation with our community,” says Lisa Dotson, director of Main Street Athens.
“This ONE peaceful conversation and demonstration is transforming our city! The impact of this conversation brought an awakening to many of our community members about things they were not aware of, and it has encouraged our Black community members to join forces and become more knowledgeable of the opportunities that are available in the community. Together, we are taking a seat at the table to bring about change for the betterment of all.
“This meeting allowed for a more intimate public discussion with approximately 40 citizens. It allowed the community to ask and get answers to tough questions that had been on the hearts and minds of people for years. At this meeting, we agreed that we don’t have to wait for a group to fight our battle for us. We can be our own advocate and take our personal concerns to city hall and allow them to be reviewed individually.
“The negativity that has impacted our nation has also impacted my role as a Main Street director, but in a positive way. In order to have a better community, it starts with the individual. I realize instead of talking about change, I must ‘BE’ the change that I want to see for my community. Recently, a vacant seat became available on our city council, and according to the charter, it had to be filled before the November election. I have never had an interest in serving in a political role.
“However, my heart shifted within three days of the vacancy, and I became interested in serving in this capacity. I felt in my heart that serving in this role as a city council member would give me the opportunity to learn more about our city government. I put my name in the running and was nominated for the position by two of the councilmen and received a unanimous vote from the council. On August 18, 2020, I became the first African American woman to serve on the Athens City Council. I just made history!”
Another byproduct of COVID-19, and perhaps to a lesser extent the protests taking place in cities across the country, is a growing desire for many who are able to vacate urban areas and move to smaller communities and more rural environs. Social distancing, telecommuting for work, a safer place to raise a family and a better quality of life are all factors in making this decision. Rebuilding and rebalancing the economy might go hand in hand with similar efforts and interest in doing the same with small[er] town America. The population shift is already underway.
“The trend I am seeing and consulting with others about is people who live in cities are looking to get away from the masses of people,” says Todd Wolford, executive director of Downtown Wytheville, in southwestern Virginia. “Families are looking for quality of life and a slower-paced lifestyle for their children and the stress that comes along with it. The pandemic has changed the workforce and the way companies think about teleworking and other partial work-from-home options moving forward. I think that’s where communities like ours have a chance to flourish. We are slowly seeing this trend happen here locally and I anticipate with continued access to quality broadband infrastructure, we will continue to see sustainable growth rise in our area.”
High-speed internet access is vital to continued growth.
Wolford stresses that reliable, high-speed internet access is vital to continued growth. Known as the digital divide, many rural areas lack the broadband internet access essential to working from home or distance learning, especially now when many schools are virtual due to the pandemic.
Carrie Holt, CEO of the Southwest Virginia Association of REALTORS® (SWVARR) agrees that more people apparently are seeking a rural way of life. She says SWVARR members report they are frequently fielding multiple offers on rural properties — which hasn’t been the norm for the last several years — or are working with buyers who are willing to submit an offer on a property, sight unseen.
“Most of the phone calls from out-of-town folks are from urban areas. Our REALTORS® are very busy and properties are moving quickly,” Holt explains. “People are hoping to find a little plot of land in the countryside.”
REALTORS® frequently participate in the planning process, especially when the issue is how to make communities more accessible to residents. When the country eventually moves out of the COVID crisis, REALTORS® and their expertise will certainly be essential resources and collaborators as communities plan for the future.
Town planners and policymakers would be wise to take note. “This pandemic has spurred population growth to small towns like Charlevoix as people become more flexible with their work and school obligations and seek a slower, less populated area,” says Dotson. “This has also forced local municipalities to get creative with how they approach urban design with a more acute focus on pedestrian ease of access as a result of social distancing measures that have taken place across the country. Now, more people are paying attention to how a downtown is used and how we can make these spaces safer while promoting commerce in new and exciting ways.”
The hopeful silver lining in the gray cloud of reality seems to lie more on main street America than in Washington, D.C. Perhaps that should come as no surprise. With the multiplier of the internet to spur small-business sales and generate financial aid quickly through crowdfunding sources that can be used to leverage grants from NGOs, nonprofits, P3s and foundations, opportunities certainly exist for moving on through this year and putting 2020 in hindsight. It boils down to local communities collaborating to strategically address the current crises in public health and social justice. From rural areas, to small towns to larger cities; communities are finding ways to overcome the challenges of COVID-19 and social unrest and are carving out solutions that will strengthen their communities in the long run.
“Little ole’ Athens, Tenn., with a population of less than 15,000, is being proactive in this fight against racism and social injustice,” (Lisa) Dotson reminds us. “ONE conversation is transforming our world. ‘It started with the one in the mirror!’”