What’s the future of downtown?
- Published: May 20, 2020
Although the streets of downtown Yellow Springs have been relatively quiet of late, that’s beginning to change. On Tuesday, more than a dozen local retailers opened their doors as state restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic eased. Other shops are reopening more slowly, or are still waiting for the green light from the state.
Even with the tentative openings, business-as-usual seems far off. Closed since at least mid-March, many local merchants remain worried about the health of their businesses. They wonder, will shoppers return? Can they keep employees and customers safe? Will they make up the financial losses of the last two months?
And, if they don’t survive, what will happen to downtown Yellow Springs?
In recent weeks, as local business owners shared their fears about the future of their stores, and the whole downtown, Village leaders have begun to respond with new forms of support, including forgivable loans. Some business owners have hailed those moves, while other merchants argue that more assistance is needed.
Little Art Theatre Executive Director Jenny Cowperthwaite Ruka, for one, appreciates that Village leaders have stepped up their efforts to help. But the situation facing downtown may be more fragile than many realize. At stake is the identity of the community, she believes.
“What is Yellow Springs without its downtown businesses, without our unique mom-and-pop shops?” she said. “We could be the next dead downtown. It’s a domino effect.”
Cowperthwaite Ruka is dwelling in uncertainty about the fate of the 90-year-old local theater.
The state has not yet set a reopening date for movie theaters. But last week, Cowperthwaite Ruka worked on a new socially-distanced seating layout, with far fewer seats utilized. With patrons having their own row and sitting two rows apart, the capacity of the theater will be down to between 14 individual patrons and 56 in family groups, from a pre-closure capacity of 122.
Thankfully, most of her 20 employees are willing to return when the theater reopens. But will moviegoers come? And how will COVID-19 affect the movie industry, which has pivoted during the crisis, somewhat successfully, to releasing films directly to streaming services?
“My concern is that distributors are going to be hesitant to open their films in theaters, which are at least 50% diminished capacity,” Cowperthwaite Ruka said.
However, the Little Art, which became a nonprofit about 10 years ago, largely survives by its members and corporate sponsors. That support will be even more critical in the coming months and years, but is also rife with uncertainty, Cowperthwaite Ruka said.
“Our donors, our supporters, will they continue to support us with our doors closed? And when we reopen, will they continue to support us?”
This week, the News looks at the possible long term impact of COVID-19 on downtown Yellow Springs, and what is being done to prevent the worst-case scenario.
The case for downtown
Downtown, in addition to providing amenities for villagers and visitors, contributes jobs, economic value and tax revenue to the community, business owners said this week. Other benefits are less tangible.
To Jamie Sharp, owner of YS Toy Company, a downtown “is a place the community can come together,” akin to the old “village square.”
“A downtown is central to a sense of place,” Sharp said.
According to the Yellow Springs Chamber of Commerce, the village has more than 40 businesses in its central business district, including a wide variety of small boutique and specialty shops, plus restaurants, coffee shops and bookstores, a movie theater, hotel, grocery, hardware store, pharmacy and more.
Locally, the accomodation and food service sector accounted for 257 jobs in 2017, according to U.S. Census figures, with retail trade adding another 167 local jobs. Combined, the two sectors account for 46% of local jobs.
And in a 2019 analysis, the Yellow Springs Chamber estimated that Yellow Springs’ “destination economy” brings in $16 million to the community annually, with $4.6 million spent by overnight visitors and $11.5 million by daytrippers.
Downtown Yellow Springs was not always this robust. Marcia Wallgren, who has owned the Ohio Silver jewelry store since 1974, reflected recently that it took years for the downtown to become as strong as it is now. There were no coffeeshops, empty storefronts were common and shops changed over frequently.
“When I came here in 1974, it was not a sustainable business district,” she said. “I think we’re on the brink of some big changes now.”
Cowperthwaite Ruka, who in 1978 started managing the Little Art, then a for-profit business, said that businesses came and went quickly and “everyone was just getting by.” But that changed in recent years with more promotion and a growing tourist trade.
“The effort of the Chamber to make Yellow Springs a destination has paid off for businesses,” she said.
A vibrant downtown not only helps businesses that rely on tourism, but the entire central business district, according to Gilah Pomeranz, who co-owns Yellow Springs Hardware with her husband, Shep Anderson.
“Even though we rely mostly on our local, Yellow Springs residents, the general vibrancy of the downtown is critical to us,” she said.
When most stores were shuttered mid-March to slow the spread of COVID-19, the impact was swift and severe. Income dried up, and many businesses had no choice but to lay off their employees. Meanwhile, some expenses, such as rent and utilities, continued to mount.
Federal loan programs were highly competitive and confusing to apply for, while some state employment benefits that help self-employed business owners were slow to come online.
In the midst of the crisis, some local business owners felt Village leaders were slow to recognize the dire straits many businesses were in, and to reach out with support.
“Nobody was alarmed,” reflected Sharp of the local response. “But the dominoes are starting to fall.”
On a May 1 videoconference call with 62 attendees, including merchants and Village officials, and organized by the Chamber of Commerce, some business owners expressed their concerns.
Wallgren explained that what businesses face is “not a cash flow problem,” where they could take out a temporary loan and pay it back when sales returned to normal. Instead, business owners don’t know when customers will return, or if they might be shut down again if there is a spike of COVID-19 cases.
“If we want to preserve this business district there’s going to have to be some help, besides loans,” Wallgren told Village officials.
According to Wallgren’s research, other communities in Ohio such as Kettering, Lakewood, Middletown, Norwalk and South Euclid have offered grants to small businesses to pay expenses during the shutdown or for rent relief. She wondered why the same efforts weren’t happening in Yellow Springs.
Soon after the May 1 meeting, several local organizations sprang into action to come up with new ways to support local businesses.
The Yellow Springs Community Foundation, which had already arranged a line of credit loans for small businesses and nonprofits of up to $5,000, with no interest to be paid until January 2022, got to work on a new website to support merchants.
The foundation is using its Giving Tuesday platform to create a site to funnel aid to local shops. Donors can specify which businesses they want to support or donate to a fund that supports all businesses, with a percentage of each donation going to a “rainy day fund” to benefit downtown businesses as a whole.
The Yellow Springs Development Corporation, a new quasi-governmental economic development group in town, quickly made $30,000 available for forgivable loans of up to $2,500 for downtown businesses that can demonstrate a change or reinvention of operations, such as moving online, improving one’s space or purchasing new equipment. The Village recently gave those funds to the new development corporation for a local business revolving loan fund.
The new efforts came out of the realization that grants — not loans — were needed, Village Council President Brian Housh said.
“One of the biggest things we’ve heard is that loans are not of interest,” Housh said of the May 1 call.
However, with local resources tight, he also urged citizens to request Greene County step in to offer more support for small businesses. Other counties in the state, including Champaign and Cuyahoga, have already made small business grants available.
“Most municipalities don’t have much money to make a difference like the county does,” Housh said.
To further support the reopening of businesses, this week the Village of Yellow Springs made a bulk purchase of hand sanitizer, giving away 58 bottles to more than 25 businesses, some of whom have been struggling to acquire the product.
Reflecting on these steps, Pomeranz and Anderson praised the quick action to help businesses.
“I have been very pleased and encouraged by how the Chamber and community foundation have responded,” Pomeranz said. “They were quick and being as proactive as possible.”
Yellow Springs Hardware doesn’t plan on applying for local support, as they were deemed an “essential business” and allowed to remain open, even while they drastically cut hours for safety and laid off their five employees. Still, they understand the frustration of shops who were closed entirely.
“I really feel for our fellow stores downtown,” Pomeranz said. “We’re fortunate. We’ve been able to pay our bills.”
Looking ahead, Yellow Springs Chamber of Commerce Director Karen Wintrow believes downtown Yellow Springs could be more resilient than malls and other commercial areas that have struggled in recent years. In the end, COVID-19 may impact downtown Yellow Springs in ways that cannot be prevented, she added.
“I expect coming out of this we may be different,” she said. “I don’t think that’s the fault of Village Council or anyone else. I just think that’s what COVID is doing to the world.”
Wider changes in consumer behavior may also have an impact, Pomeranz and Anderson believe. For instance, people relying on home delivery of items, such as through Amazon, could be devastating for downtown.
“A lot of people, more so than before, are going to be looking at the convenience and safety of having things delivered right to their home, and that’s going to impact all of our business downtown,” Anderson said.
In the end, Wintrow said she doubts much additional government support will be forthcoming from either the Village or the county, as tax revenue declines begin to impact them.
“Each business needs so much help, and when you start multiplying that, it’s way beyond what the Village has resources for,” she said. “Especially with their financial uncertainty related to loss of tax revenue.”
But some argue that the Village can’t afford not to offer more help, with future tax revenues on the line. As Sharp sees it, financial aid to local businesses is not “a handout” but “an investment in the future of this town.”
For her part, Sharp has organized a group of more than 40 local business owners together in a private Facebook Group to share ideas and support one another. Through those connections, Sharp sees many businesses struggling to make it.
Even before the crisis, margins were tight, with competition from big box stores and online retailers intensifying, merchants told the News. The timing of the shutdown coinciding with the start of the busy season made matters worse, as did the loss of Street Fair.
Above all, Sharp wants villagers to know what’s at stake.
“To the general Yellow Springs public, it’s really important for them to understand that we’re looking at the loss of our Main Street and it’s a lot closer than we think.”