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Opinion: Downtown rises, falls together

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Interdependence.

Downtowns perform best when all its segments are humming. A strong office climate drives coffee and lunch sales. Attractions and entertainment are fuel for restaurants and retail. Special events draw regional patrons and overnight guests. Thriving universities spark culture and nightlife. Loft residents increase pedestrian activity and energy for nights and weekends.

Almost 15 years ago, downtown Springfield endured a round of shootings near a handful of its nightclubs. The ripple effect of the market’s pullback in spending due to the safety concerns of the public affected more than just nightlife; it impacted restaurants that closed before 10 p.m., theaters, retailers and development. It was a reminder that no business or industry is an island unto itself when it comes to downtowns. Everyone rises and falls together.

The coronavirus pandemic magnified downtown’s connectedness on an unprecedented scale. Office workers stayed home. Attractions and theaters turned dark. Parades were canceled and festivals postponed. Students finished courses from home. No sports to cheer. Nightlife was what could be purchased from the grocery store or curbside. Pedestrian traffic was a purposeful activity, rather than a leisurely stroll. Everyone is suffering and unsure of what lies ahead.

One of the industries affected most dramatically has been travel and tourism.

Yet, the start of 2020 held immense promise. Hotel Vandivort doubled in size with another 48 guest rooms and its Vantage rooftop bar was gearing up for its first spring. The Tru Hotel by Hilton opened just in time for the holidays and was ready for its first tourist season. O’Reilly Hospitality Management LLC was poised to begin construction on its new Moxy by Marriott on South Avenue. The History Museum on the Square was polishing its trophy as American’s No. 1 Best New Attraction by USA Today.

The Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau had a full slate of state championships, the home school basketball tournament was about to tip-off, the national Goldwing group would be celebrating Fourth of July in Springfield, and the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival would be celebrating its 10th anniversary.

It was all unplugged in late March.

Hundreds of workers were laid off from hotels, restaurants and nightlife. Only a fraction of downtown’s 600 hotel rooms were occupied over six long weeks. Attractions and theaters remain uncertain as to when they will be allowed to reopen at a level that is economically viable. Special events will be the last phase to be rescheduled.

And yet, reasons for hope have arrived like spring flowers.

The city of Springfield issued its Road to Recovery plan on April 30 and then expanded the first phase of reopening to all nonessential businesses on May 7. Offices started the process of welcoming back their workers, who were grateful for a more familiar routine and to reconnect with their masked co-workers. Barbershops and beauty salons were bustling with scheduled appointments from shaggy clients. Patrons gathered in appropriately spaced sidewalk cafes. Shoppers ventured out to their favorite retailers to secure extra meaningful Mother’s Day gifts.

It’s just the start on a long road to an AC (after COVID-19) world. There will be fits and starts along the way – especially if health department guidance is not heeded and good judgment exercised.

Beyond faithfully practicing good hygiene, here are a few suggestions on ways to invest a portion of your federal stimulus check to support the local travel and hospitality industry:

• Gift cards. A quick and easy way to provide your favorite restaurants with a little cash flow at a time when they need it.

• Delivery. While you’re still exercising social distancing, delivery is a great way to not miss your favorite tastes. An Insomnia Cookie delivery of cookies and ice cream this past week was an early Mother’s Day gift at the Worley household.

• Night out. After being cooped up with the entire family, plan a “staycation” night at a local hotel in the coming weeks with your special someone.

• Family reunion. Time and quarantines make the heart grow fonder – even for in-laws and cousins. Summer is the perfect time to plan family reunions. Introduce them to some of Springfield’s 600 area restaurants, dozens of family-friendly attractions and more than 100 parks and trails.

Downtowners have been vividly reminded of our interdependence over the past two months. May we all endeavor to follow the sage counsel of the historic Gillioz Theatre’s marquee: “Be safe. Be kind. Be hopeful.”

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

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