How COVID-19 Will Leave Main Street Forever Changed

Isaac Kremer/ June 16, 2020/ tactical urbanism, Writing/ 0 comments

This is the News From New Jersey
Out my window a skinny young man in a black hoodie races to the front door of a house across the street, plops down several flimsy plastic bags, taps a few clicks on his phone, then runs off at full speed through the steady rain. A month ago this small act might have been unremarkable though today it is a vital lifeline. There are hundreds of other disruptive routines just like this being witnessed in places throughout the US that embody the times we live in. While the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 is the greatest shock ever to our civic, social, and economic lives, it is also an opportunity to ask hard questions and decide how we as communities, regions, and states want to emerge on the other side.

How Some Businesses Are Adapting
Protecting public health is the most important priority now and for the foreseeable future. For public-facing businesses still able to operate from a physical location, they can help to achieve this by regularly cleaning and sanitizing, limiting the number of customers inside stores, offering cashless transactions, and providing curbside pickup.

Our experience with curbside pickup has been positive in Metuchen, New Jersey, where I lead a business improvement district with 365 members. Almost immediately it was apparent that demand for street parking plummeted. At a suggestion from a business we set out 10 curbside pickup areas beside businesses that were still open. Meters were bagged for two or three adjoining parking spaces, signs put up, and a promotional video launched to introduce these.

And, sure enough, they got used.

What many geographically based businesses have found as a result of this global pandemic is the need to develop new distribution channels. Some businesses are able to sell their product or provide their services online. In my community a Pilates studio, two yoga studios, and even a business that provides music lessons for kids made the shift to online classes and now accept online payment for these.

Online shopping and gift cards have provided another lifeline for many businesses. Relatively quickly and thanks to volunteer efforts we saw the number of businesses offering e-gift cards go from a handful to several dozen. These provide immediate cash flow along with the promise that customers will return once the pandemic is over. Some have gone so far as to call gift cards a “small business stimulus program.”

Businesses with online stores set up before the crisis are benefiting. One of our local running stores that is a “non-essential” retail business with their physical storefront closed is fielding a dozen or more orders a day through their website. Others are rapidly trying to set up online stores. Platforms like Beyond Main (www.beyondmain.com) provide an easy way for stores with a physical location to sell online. Customers browse and shop multiple stores at one, place products in a single cart, and make one payment.

Restaurants, too, have found new and interesting ways to pivot. From the moment they were closed for dining early on in the pandemic, many shifted to delivery only. Another innovation related to this was creating family style meals. A fixed number of these larger meals with a higher price point can be prepared each day and then delivered. Finally, some created meal kits for people to make their own pizza, tacos, or other meals at home. What we might find after the crisis is less a focus on restaurants with dining, and more with a fast-casual and delivery only model. “Ghost kitchens” shared by multiple restaurants may become more common. That in turn will free up prime spaces on Main Street to take on other uses.

Other restaurants shifted to a non-profit model providing food for first responders and people in need. One program in Metuchen that has worked very well is a Feeding the Front Line initiative. Donations were collected from local residents and then used to buy meals, snacks, and other needed products from local businesses. Some of the recipients included our local Police Department, EMS crew, hospital workers, and others.

Most telling are those businesses that have kept in communication with customers. Throughout the pandemic they are trading on the relationships they developed, some over many years and decades, and finding customers coming to their assistance. Stylists calling their clients and reserving appointments for whenever they reopen is one of many examples of customer loyalty.

The Return to All Things Local
Even with these innovations one is left with the feeling that somehow it is not enough. This pandemic has revealed the downside of supply chains and distribution channels that span the globe and that are controlled by players far outside our community boundaries. If this lesson is deeply understood, internalized, and learning put into action – this would seem to indicate the urgent need for a return to all things local. Local manufacturing on a small scale, local food systems, and locally controlled and managed distribution systems are all essential to create the tightly integrated and sustainable local economies that are resilient to future shocks and disruptions.

Shop local campaigns while the sign of forward-looking communities before, are going to be critical for the survival of small and locally owned businesses moving forward. The over decade- long Small Business Saturday campaign by American Express supported hundreds of thousands of businesses and catalyzed millions of people toshop small” one day out of the year. This program or one like it is needed to become a call for shopping small and shopping local throughout the year.

With skyrocketing unemployment, small businesses are faced with a perfect storm of challenges and will need all the help they can get through this great disruption. Economic development organizations will likely shift from recruitment to retention and fighting to save every business and job. For many businesses this will require getting back to basics – developing a business plan, finding financing and investment to support sustainable growth,* developing new products and services, and developing new distribution channels to bring these to market. One of the hardest lessons of this global pandemic for small businesses and those who support them is to have a line of credit renewable each year and cash reserves necessary to get through disruptions of at least 6 to 12 months.

On the more distant end of the time spectrum, as the severity of the pandemic intensified I recalled the 2020 plans that many regions put into place in the late 1980s and 1990s. With the possibility of future pandemics, the existential threat posed by global warming, an imminent recession or worse, and the continued transformation of our culture by the full embrace of technology – now would seem to be a good time to craft similar plans. What might a long-term plan we make today do to prepare communities and businesses for life in 2040, 2050, or beyond?

Prior to COVID-19 it was widely recognized how over half of small businesses fail in the first five years of businesses and seventy percent fail in their tenth year of business. Other commentators observed the declining rates of entrepreneurship and sought to reverse that trend. A silver lining of the times we live in is that many Fortune 500 companies started during a bear market or depression – General Electric, IBM, General Motors, Microsoft or Apple – just to name a few. At this very moment someone is sitting in a garage or bedroom launching a business that will reshape our economy and provide needed products and services in new and innovative ways. That’s definitely an encouraging thought.

How Will Our Downtowns Look and Function Differently?
This leads to a big question – what the world will look like and what new functions will our downtown areas perform once all of this is over? It’s still too early to know how long we’ll be stuck in our homes and the profound economic toll this pandemic will cause. For that reason predicting the future is a dangerous exercise but I’ll hazard a guess. Main Street is not just a place but also a symbol. It pulls the heartstrings. When well cared for downtown is a wellspring of civic pride. In times of tragedy as well as triumph, Main Street is a place where people gather to mark major milestones and smaller intimate moments that are the stuff of life.

Downtown will rise again to serve a symbolic role during the recovery, though will be different. Interactions between customers will not always take place at physical locations. The new thinking is that people from the comfort of their homes can shop local and provide support for downtown businesses without ever having to set foot there.

When they do come back downtown it will be different. Large festivals and public gatherings will be avoided because no one wants to bring significant number of people together contributing to a new outbreak. Instead when people come downtown we’re likely to see smaller scale gatherings that indicate vitality, while limiting risk. Responsible communities will invest in cleaning and sanitizing public areas to limit future outbreaks.

Which brings me to a final thought drawn straight out of the FEMA playbook from my first job as a disaster recovery contractor following Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast nearly 15 years ago. Once the urgent public health and safety needs are addressed comes the time to focus the community on a catalyst project. This becomes a focal point for the resurgence and rallies people together. Maybe the curbside pickup spaces become a permanent feature? Perhaps the needs of pedestrians and cyclists are prioritized over cars? Possibly Americans finally emulate other countries and invest in creating great public spaces that are welcoming to people and support the rich economic, civic, and social life we desire but often fall short of achieving in most places? While these ideas might have been difficult to build a constituency for prior to the pandemic, now there is a sense that everything is possible.

Despite the great uncertainty faced by so many today, one thing is certain. Main Street will continue to serve an invaluable function for our communities though they will emerge from this pandemic fundamentally changed. Smart leaders will help businesses and communities to adapt to the new times we live in that none of us could have predicted even a month ago. At least, that is what I thought as I saw the young man dropping off groceries on my neighbor’s porch and running through the rain.

Note: This article was published in the inaugural issue of the American Downtown Revitalization Review. Isaac Kremer was Executive Director of the Metuchen Downtown Alliance at the time. He served in that role from 2016 to 2022.

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About Isaac Kremer

A nationally recognized downtown revitalization leader, downtowns Isaac managed achieved $350 million of investment, 1,300 jobs created, and were 2X Great American Main Street Award Semifinalist and a 1X GAMSA winner in 2023. His work has been featured in Newsday, NJBIZ, ROI-NJ, TapInto, and USA Today. Isaac is a Main Street America Revitalization Professional (MSARP) with additional certifications from the National Parks Service, Project for Public Spaces, and the National Development Council.

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