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Helping small businesses, keeping main streets viable

The mission statement is only four words: Creating jobs. Keeping character.

The work of Main Street Alabama is crucial during normal times. Even more so during the pandemic. More than two dozen communities rely on guidance and support from the nonprofit organization.

“Main Street Alabama has been extraordinarily proactive during the COVID crisis, sharing daily information, strategies, webinars and other educational programs,” said Paul Carruthers, a Regions banker and longtime board member of the statewide organization. “There has been a sharing of ideas on how to assist small businesses in Main Street communities, how to change and increase marketing efforts, and educating small businesses on how to increase sales via online avenues and promotions.”

Founded a little over a decade ago, Main Street Alabama stresses public-private partnerships, job-creation strategies and new investments to revitalize business districts. The program has had big successes, like those in downtown Gadsden.

But the pandemic creates a whole new challenge.

“Main Street Alabama is working with our communities on the next chapter – what will our new normal look like?” said Mary Helmer, Main Street Alabama President.

Helping small businesses prepare, Main Street is focusing on three key areas.

“This includes funding, online sales and marketing assistance, and merchandising for a safe shopping environment. That will be our focus moving forward,” Helmer said.

While outreach varies from community to community, Main Street chapters are coming up with creative ways to help, including these examples.

‘We are poised to endure’

In Wetumpka, a short commute from the state capital of Montgomery, Main Street Executive Director Jenny Stubbs understands the frustrations of local business owners. She and her husband own Frios Gourmet Pops in the downtown district adjacent to the Coosa River.

“We are continually touching base with downtown businesses, and that will remain a priority,” Stubbs said. “Keeping our revitalization initiatives in the public eye has been a priority, as well. Unfortunately, our two largest fundraisers, along with two community events, had to be postponed or canceled, which is obviously disconcerting.”

Not to be deterred, members of Main Street Wetumpka created a downtown dance-off tour of Wetumpka that quickly went viral and helps keeps spirits up.

With video conferencing becoming the norm – for businesses, students and friends just keeping up – Main Street created downtown Wetumpka backgrounds that can be used free of charge.

Before the pandemic, Main Street completed some landscaping projects, including the Alleyway, part of the new Tulotoma Snail Trail of greenspace. In addition, Main Street complemented the city’s downtown revitalization efforts by funding and selecting six benches to complement the streetscape. Daily, people are getting out and enjoying the downtown district, working to keep a safe social distance.

“After decades of deterioration, including a stalled streetscape and a tornado, I feel like we are poised to endure,” Stubbs said. “I have every reason to be optimistic despite the very real challenges and uncertainty taking place.”

Takeout, gift cards — and giving back

In Alexander City, a half-hour drive from Auburn University, Main Street purchased $25 gift cards to put money back in the registers of local merchants and restaurants. Each day, Main Street Alexander City Executive Director Stacey Jeffcoat conducts an online trivia question with the winner earning one of the gift cards.

Main Street also promotes “Takeout Thursday,” encouraging locals to order from downtown restaurants.

“We’ve waived Main Street membership fees for the year, so we are promoting all downtown businesses whether they are members or not,” Jeffcoat said. “You’re looking at 45-50 businesses now. And what I hear from the merchants is that everyone is appreciative.”

Jeffcoat’s Main Street team has worked with officials from the city and local Chamber of Commerce to provide the most up-to-date information on available loans and grants for local businesses.

“We’re blessed to live in this community, which is very supportive of our local businesses,” Jeffcoat added. “They’re hurting now, but they’re keeping their employees working. In addition, they’re feeding the nurses at the hospital and members of the police and fire departments – just another way of giving back to their community.”

‘Business as unusual’ and potential grants

In Heflin, a small, rural community near the Georgia state line, Main Street is distributing gift certificates through Facebook contests.

“We decided to take $1,000 out of our account and provide gift certificates,” explained Tanya Maloney, the Director of Economic Development for Heflin and head of Main Street. “The businesses are loving this. The winners get a $50 gift certificate for the business of their choosing.”

A partnership with the Chamber of Commerce will produce “Business as Unusual,” a series of online interviews with business owners where they talk about how they’re adjusting to the new normal, how they see small business going forward – and how community support is needed.

The most ambitious program is in the works. Main Street, the chamber and the Heflin Industrial Development Board is working on providing small-business grants that would provide capital expenses to help cover utilities and payroll.

“The Industrial Development Board would provide the funding from a local tax that goes to boosting business,” Maloney said. “We have a call scheduled with our community foundation to get this rolling.”

Moving Forward

There is no single remedy to all the challenges facing our communities. But the work of Main Street Alabama, and the commitment of community partners, including Regions Bank and many others, represent one important component of long-term recovery: people coming together united in their vision to create brighter days ahead.

(Courtesy of Regions Bank’s Doing More Today)