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Opinion: Downtown businesses draw roadmap for recovery

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After an exhausting year of turbulence, it would be a shame for small-business owners to not examine the lessons learned during the gauntlet of the pandemic to guide them on the road to recovery.

Small businesses, employing under 50 employees, are a major driving force in the local economy. More than 80% of the membership of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce comprises small businesses. Their combined success will be a key indicator in how quickly the region returns to full throttle.

Here are some of my observations from downtown small businesses that not only survived the economic storm but also are well positioned to emerge stronger from it.

Start with the why
Five Pound Apparel is committed to giving back to someone, somewhere. The retailer is a champion for Ozarks Food Harvest and products that help make the world a better place, such as Toms Shoes, Krochet Kids and Out of Print clothing. Through its distinctive designs that celebrate local places, foods and qualities, Five Pound fosters civic pride in our city. Since the company’s founding in 2010, it has changed ownership from Brian Simpson to Brina and Ben Thomas, opened two stores, closed one, developed subscription programs and continues to evolve. But its unwavering commitment to giving back has made it a beloved Springfield institution.

Adapt or perish
Druff’s saw the usable capacity of its intimate dining area slashed due to social distancing regulations. It lost its counter seating and many of its booths. The resulting tiny square footage in the Sky Eleven building would have been unsustainable. Owner Vance Hall quickly expanded Druff’s carryout options and partnered with Better Block SGF to construct outdoor dining on Park Central East. The look and feel of the restaurant extended beyond its four walls. It demonstrated that restaurants could evolve to connect with its customers that transcend its original experience.

People are precious
The popularity of Gailey’s Breakfast Cafe is evident in the lines of patrons eagerly waiting for their brunch each weekend. Its roots go back to 1942, when Joe and Beulah Gailey opened a pharmacy and place to eat, read the paper and share stories. Craig Wagoner made Gailey’s a cornerstone of the Seville Hotel renovation two decades ago. Despite the occupancy restrictions from COVID-19, Wagoner has maintained his core staff through competitive salaries and cultivating a culture workers want to be a part of. That quality is important in a tight local employment market, coming in at 3.6% unemployed in March 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That likely will be even more challenging as customer traffic increases with vaccinations over the coming months.

Tapping into resources
Clayton and Anne Baker, owners of Civil Kitchen, Tinga Tacos and Finnegan’s Wake, are two of the dozens of downtown business owners who have had to brush up on their accounting and interpretation of tax codes to take advantage of the federal Paycheck Protection Program, Employee Retention Tax Credit and Economic Injury Disaster Loan, as well as local small-business grant programs from Greene County and the city of Springfield.

Their ability to utilize those programs was critical to remaining open and retaining staff during the past year. There likely will be additional grant and loan programs emerge to assist small businesses in the next phase of the road to recovery. Small businesses should make sure to work with the Efactory, Springfield chamber and Downtown Springfield Association to take full advantage of those previously rare forms of financial assistance.

Stronger together
Over the course of its 10-year history, the owners of A Cricket in the House – Cricket and Mark Fries – have embraced getting their vendors more active in the management of the store, strengthening ties to Springfield’s art community, modifying hours to better accommodate older customers and leading downtown retailers to organize shopping days and monthly “retail therapy” sessions. That spirit of collaboration will serve them well as traffic ramps back up with vaccinations.

Remembering these key lessons of remaining true to your mission, finding new ways to serve your customers, retaining core staff, securing additional resources and joining forces with your neighbors can serve as a roadmap for the road to recovery.

Rusty Worley, executive director of Downtown Springfield Association, can be reached at rusty@itsalldowntown.com.

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