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In the wake of property damage and a pandemic slowdown, businesses say they need more help from city leaders.
Despite sustaining $100,000 worth of damage to his storefront following racial justice demonstrations this spring, Reliable Jewelry and Loan owner Alan Horwitz says the South Wilmington Street business is “doing great.”
“We have a very loyal clientele, we’re fortunate with everything going on,” says Horwitz, whose family has operated the business downtown since the 1930s. Because it issues loans, the store never had to close during the pandemic shutdown. “We were lucky in that regard.”
Horwitz was not one of 71 percent of business owners who said they didn’t think, or didn’t know if, their business would survive the COVID-19 pandemic in a recent survey of some 200 locally owned businesses from advocacy group Shop Local Raleigh. But he was one of the nearly 75 percent of business owners who responded that he doesn’t think local leadership—the mayor and city council—has “the best interests of Raleigh’s small business community in mind.”
“Government officials set downtown back years with those few nights [of protests],” Horwitz says. “All the progress we’ve made came to a stop. It was a 100 percent unforgivable response.”
Though the COVID closures ordered by state leaders were beyond the scope of the city council’s and mayor’s control, business owners say they aren’t happy about some of the council’s recent decisions and actions around both the protests and the pandemic and say city leaders aren’t doing enough to advocate on their behalf.
Along with criticizing the mayor’s and police chief’s handling of the protests, survey respondents say they need better communication from the council on its plans to help small businesses and to revive downtown in particular. Some say they have reached out to elected officials with questions and requests for assistance and have received no response. Others say the mayor and council members have simply “disappeared.”
“We need more frequent updates on what the city’s plan is on reopening the downtown area,” wrote one survey respondent. “We are all struggling. The city is not even attempting to lure guests or commerce back into our businesses.”
“As far as saving small business is concerned,” wrote another respondent, “we personally feel Raleigh treats small businesses as expendable. We’ve received no real support at startup or to help us grow. Small grants are not impactful to businesses.”
The city has allowed restaurants to apply for permits to temporarily expand outdoor seating. It approved $1 million to support small businesses and raised an additional $600,000 with the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce to support nearly 200 businesses. It waived permit fees related to repairing damage and reinstated its storefront facade grant program and Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin says the council is discussing how to close Fayetteville Street to cars on weekends, creating safe spaces for pop-ups and other activities.
The council has largely outsourced downtown’s revival strategy to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, allocating $300,000 to the nonprofit this summer for marketing efforts, installing more lighting and art and to hire more ambassadors to make downtown feel safer and more inviting. The DRA is also offering storefront revitalization grants of up to $5,000 to businesses to repair damage from vandalism or to assist with implementing COVID-19 protocols.
“With the assistance of DRA, I’ve held more than a half dozen meetings with local business owners to better understand their needs,” Baldwin wrote in an email to Raleigh Magazine. “We are also looking at an alert system that business owners have suggested, which would allow our team to alert them of issues and improve communication…. We are also looking at city-owned property downtown that could be used to support arts and other nonprofit organizations, as well as minority-owned businesses.”
District C Council member and mayor pro-tem Corey Branch says he has personally been speaking to business owners to “get a better understanding of their concerns and challenges.”
“Could we have done better during those nights of disturbance and destruction? In hindsight, everyone is going to say yes, but I don’t think anyone expected it,” Branch says. “That was the first time we’ve had riots like that in my lifetime.”
The DRA’s efforts seem to be paying off some. The nonprofit reported an 87 percent increase of sales of food and drinks downtown from May to June, coinciding with restaurant dining rooms reopening across the state, and a 34 percent increase in foot traffic downtown from July to August. In a recent poll, the DRA found that 80 percent of downtown residents said they felt safe living downtown and residential occupancy rates remain above 90 percent.
Shop Local Raleigh, too, is planning a recovery strategy for small businesses, hosting seminars on topics like financial restructuring, and planning for holiday shopping.
“We hope to work with the city to put a message in the water bill to remind people to shift to buying here in Raleigh instead of online,” says Shop Local Raleigh’s executive director Jennifer Martin.
But with more than half of local businesses reporting that they face closure by the end of the year, Martin acknowledges there’s a difficult road ahead.
“The business community is looking for someone to be that point they can go to for information, someone advocating for them and reassuring them that we’re fighting for them,” Martin says.
Elected officials say they’re trying to help, but, right now, business owners don’t perceive that advocacy and fighting for them as coming from the city.
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