By NASH NUNNERY
Since the arrival of the virus in March and the subsequent shutdown of downtowns, COVID-19 has complicated the task of keeping many of those communities vibrant and reversing a downturn in population and economic stability. An April survey of 149 Mississippi small business owners by Main Street America indicated that 62 percent of those businesses were at risk of closing permanently by September 2020.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Just ask Thomas Gregory, state coordinator for the Mississippi Main Street Association, a non-profit organization boasting a membership of over 50 cities and towns.
“Typically, we operate on a four-point Main Street America approach – economic vitality, design, promotion and organization. COVID-19 has forced us to spend 85 percent of our focus on the economic vitality segment,” Gregory said. “However, we’ve quickly adapted with an ‘all hand on deck’ mentality and our staff has responded well.
“We’re fortunate in Mississippi that our economy is more rural and has been allowed to re-open so quickly.”
A follow-up MSA national survey released in late May indicated local Main Street programs played a critical role in supporting small businesses across America. Of the 728 small business owners that responded, 40 percent said that they’d received assistance from their local Main Street organization.
Gregory said tax revenues in small town Mississippi have remained steady despite the pandemic.
“What we saw was a short-term decline but according to our directors around the state, tax revenues really haven’t decreased,” he said.
Rebecca Davis has served as Main Street Pascagoula director for the past 17 years. The blue-collar coastal town has experienced Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill and countless tropical storms during her watch. However, the pandemic is in a league all its own, according to Davis.
“At least with the other events, there was a beginning and an end,” she said. “There is so much unknown about COVID-19. All you can do is roll up your sleeves and deal with it.”
Following the ‘safe to reopen with restrictions” order, some Pascagoula restaurant owners came to her with a request for outdoor picnic tables and umbrellas to increase serving capacity. Main Street Pascagoula purchased 10 umbrellas with the organization’s logo, borrowed some picnic tables from the City of Pascagoula and loaned them to area restaurants.
“I want to solve everybody’s problem, and I told someone we’re going to just make this happen,” said Davis. “It’s an exciting time getting back to some type of normalcy. Our job is improving the quality of life for our citizens.”
Main Street Mississippi has partnered with pioneering e-commerce solution provider CommentSold to help small businesses increase sales through online “comment selling” via social media.
“What we found when the pandemic first hit and businesses were forced to close was the lack of business owners that didn’t have the infrastructure to sell online,” said Gregory. “CommentSold works with these businesses to help with their existing social media platforms.”
MSM’s director of communication and marketing Jeannie Zieren said the organization’s “Opening Doors” campaign also has been helpful in assisting Mississippi small business in safely reopening. The video library features timely tutorials specifically tailored to business recovery.
“Our local Main Street programs have been quite innovative with ways to support their local businesses,” Zieren said. “For example, Louisville Main Street hosted Live Virtual Shopping before Mother’s Day. Baldwyn ordered shopping safely signage, such as 6-feet apart markers, for their businesses. Senatobia sold t-shirts to support their Main Street Relief Fund grant for small businesses. And, many of our programs have run successful social media campaigns and resource pages on their website.”
In partnership with Mississippi State University’s Carl Small Town Center, Starkville Main Street approved a plan to utilize parking spaces for temporary outdoor seating at several downtown restaurants.
“The plan that Starkville is working on is a perfect example of a program and city working together to expand capacity for restaurants,” said Jennifer Prather, MSM’s director of community development. “This will not only serve as support for their bottom line during the pandemic, but it could also be a test run for a more permanent development of outdoor dining and streetscape plans.”
Gregory believes valuable lessons have been learned on the heels of the pandemic, including the value of good communication with his member cities and towns, and the importance of small business owners to have an emergency fund.
“Always prepare for the unexpected and be proactive,” Gregory said. “We’ve also re-learned that in Mississippi, small businesses are the heart of the community, and downtowns are more important than ever.”
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