By Logan Roddy, contributor
When the pandemic hit the United States last March and government orders closed down many of them temporarily, most local business owners were trapped in a kind of economic limbo.
To survive, some businesses shifted their business models. Others pursued government loans to keep employees on the payroll. But, above all, many local Harrisonburg businesses learned they could count on the community’s support.
Although it was a tough year with some downtown businesses shuttering, from a numbers standpoint, 2020 wasn’t drastically different from the year before, according to figures from Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.
- In 2020, 12 businesses opened, four expanded, eight closed and four relocated.
- In 2019, 13 businesses opened, one expanded, nine either closed or relocated outside downtown.
Brian Shull, executive director of Harrisonburg Economic Development, said that those first weeks were crucial for those stores and businesses to help set them up to ride out the next year.
“We knew that we had to get cash into hands quickly,” Shull said. “Everybody needed a little time to reach and get personal protective equipment (PPE) in place.”
For the nearly 11 months since then, many of the independently-owned small businesses around Harrisonburg have made difficult decisions and gritted their teeth over balance sheets. But they’re still here.
Glen’s Fair Price Store, the family-owned of the eclectic allsorts shop, was forced to close for four months last March — the longest and only time “other than Christmas and Sundays” the store was shuttered since opening in 1941.
“I had to lay my own son off,” said owner Gary Stiteler. “We have had things that help out, but we’re still struggling and trying to make ends meet.”
One of those economic lifelines was a loan through the federal Payroll Protection Plan that Congress authorized last year. It was one of several ways federal, state and local government funds buoyed local businesses.
Efforts to get businesses help
Economic Development soon formed a regional task force with organizations like Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, James Madison University, Chamber of Commerce, and the Shenandoah Valley Partnership. They met weekly from March onwards to coordinate efforts to ensure that businesses were getting the help they needed.
“Thanks to federal CARES Act money coming down we were able to reward over $1 million to 180 businesses,” said Shull. “We were very pleased that first the federal government made that available and then the city council allocated that to the businesses.”
Andrea Dono, executive director at Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, helped spread the word about shopping local through PSAs, commercials, social media campaigns, and local business giveaways.
“Supporting small businesses is always important, but especially now because January, February and March are usually pretty slow months for a lot of businesses,” Dono said. “Students aren’t back in the downtown area, tourists are not coming in, so getting the businesses through the last part of winter is going to be important.”
She also emphasized ways other than shopping to support the local economy. The state-run Rebuild VA Grant Program, first approved in July, distributed $70 million in its first round — followed by another $20 million in December — and aimed to help companies that showed a loss from COVID-related expenses after March 24, 2020. But the money ran out and some downtown businesses got stuck in the review queue.
Letting legislators “know that funding the state and local governments is important because it really made a big difference for small businesses,” Dono said. “It only takes a few minutes to write an email to your legislators.”
Needing a little bit of help
The federal Payroll Protection Plan loan that Stiteler, of Glen’s Fair Price Store, received helped him considerably, he said. But it’s not always enough, and more government assistance might help him bring back another employee or two, he added, because foot traffic just isn’t what it was.
Stiteler said the hardest part was the uncertainty that plagued the early stages of the pandemic. As a provider of camera supplies for JMU’s photography classes, he had just purchased several thousand dollars’ worth of photographic paper in anticipation of the Spring 2020 semester.
“I’m still sitting on those because they don’t need it,” Stiteler said. “We stay stocked, you know? And you can’t sell something if you don’t have it.”
And while students aren’t in town, Stiteler said his older customer base is apprehensive to leave the houses.
“I just spoke with a lady that used to come in quite regularly for camera equipment and she said, ‘Well, we don’t go out unless we pretty well have to.’”
Staying open when social distancing isn’t possible
Jay Ripley, owner of Steel Heart Tattoo, endured a similar experience of a shocking halt in business for the first time in years.
“At first the lockdown was serious, but we’re like, ‘Surely by May this will be better.’ And then May came around and I had to call all these people and cancel,” Ripley said. “And it was heartbreaking. I’ve spent years getting to the point where I can be booked up months in advance.”
Soon, his calendar was empty, and Ripley had no tattoos to ink for the first time in a decade. When he reopened in June, he wanted to do it cautiously.
Ripley compiles local COVID case data, crunches the numbers and creates a graph to help him estimate the likelihood of an exposure in the shop. He also has a temperature check at the door, and a questionnaire to determine whether certain clients may be safe, such as asking where they work, who they’ve been around, and if they or anyone they know have been experiencing symptoms.
“Thankfully I haven’t had to turn anybody away, but if anybody was to fail any two of those I would probably have to.”
Because the tattoo business doesn’t exactly allow for social distancing, Ripley is no longer doing walk-ins. He also instituted advanced cleaning techniques, including a germicidal lamp he runs at the end of the day that smells like vaporized dust when the cycle’s over.
“All my regular customers seem to be very devoted to getting tattooed safely,” Ripley said. “It’s a little more effort on their part, but I think the people that are willing to go through that effort are the people who are willing to go through the effort of making it safe. Sometimes problems like that just weed themselves out.”
Making the jump online
While also previously dependent on customer presence in-store, the Agora Downtown Market needed to implement changes for safety. Allie Motyka, owner of Heartworn Vintage, said while the store has changed, the focus on shifting business online was just as important.
“We know folks are spending more time at home and on their phones, so we wanted to make it easier to purchase online,” Motyka said. “This definitely saved us while we were closed the second week of March – the first week of July. We relied heavily on Instagram and Facebook for sales.”
Like other downtown businesses, the sharp decrease in foot traffic required owners to get creative.
“We had people in the community spreading the word about our business and even shares on social media help!” Motyka said. “You don’t have to spend money to boost another business.”
… But not everything translates
Vintage clothing presents a challenge because sizes from past decades don’t always translate to modern cuts. While Heartworn’s dressing rooms have reopened, Motyka said she’s happy to provide information and measurements about pieces online.
“I do my best to choose second hand before purchasing new and if I can’t find it second hand, I look for it locally,” Motyka said. “Amazon does not need your money, but our small businesses desperately do!”
Motyka says Heartworn had one of its best holiday seasons in 2020 against the odds, which she attributed to the community’s continued efforts to shop local.
Trying a little bit of everything to keep open
A block away at Black Sheep Coffee in the Ice House, owner Chance Ebersold was celebrating five years of business last March. Right when things were about to pick up seasonally, they took a turn for the worse as sales dropped 80%.
“The whole idea of the coffee shop is bringing people together. Seeing the shop empty day after day was a little heartbreaking,” Ebersold said. “I understood why, but it still didn’t make it any easier. Everything I thought I knew through prior years and trends, it threw everything for a loop.”
Without revenue coming in, Ebersold lost three quarters of his staff and had to figure out a way to pay his remaining workers. When he didn’t get approved for the first rollout of PPP loans, he took to the internet and started a GoFundMe to “Help Keep the Sheep.”
“We were very fortunate that a lot of our customers who weren’t coming in contributed and helped out, I think those that valued what the coffee shop was,” Ebersold said.
The fundraiser received more than $3,000 in donations, and Black Sheep received a PPP loan later as part of the second round. The shop is back up to ten full-time employees from a low of four, and Ebersold said the return of JMU students to Harrisonburg helped their numbers increase last fall.
“And as they got busier, a lot of days it’s only students because they want to get out of their apartments and go study somewhere and not have to make their own food. But a lot of the local residents tend to avoid it when school is in session,” Ebersold said.
Despite the rocky start, Ebersold says people have become accustomed to the various safety mandates, and they’re doing the best they can.
“Every business owner is doing what they think is best or correct,” Ebersold said. “And everybody is trying.”
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