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Connecticut Main Street Center (CMSC) helps revitalize downtowns throughout Connecticut to become the social and economic heart of each community. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, CMSC Marketing & Development Director Christine Schilke spoke with MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager about how the organization continues to support Connecticut small businesses.

NAN PRICE: How does CMSC act as an advocate for small businesses?

CHRISTINE SCHILKE: At the state level, CMSC is part of the legislature’s Downtown/Main Street Working Group, which is chaired by Rep. Quentin Phipps (Middletown) and Rep. Jane Garibay (Windsor/Windsor Locks). We also work with other organizations like the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) and the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) to share information and resources.

We’re also in close contact with our members who work with small business owners on the ground. We act as a conduit for information where we have direct relationships with legislators or statewide groups, making sure they’re aware of business owners’ issues. It’s a two-way street with our members letting us know what business owners need and us ensuring they know what resources are available to them.

For instance, several of our members were concerned about what landlords and tenants should be doing as forced closures of businesses would impact their ability to pay. It’s not as simple as landlords entering into agreements with the tenants for short-term relief, as landlords often need to get approval from their mortgage holders. We encouraged Pullman & Comley, one of our professional affiliates, to organize a webinar about Strategies for Landlords and Tenants.

We’re also the State Coordinating Program for Main Street America (MSA), so we shared an important survey about the impacts on small businesses with our communities and state and federal decision-makers. MSA’s survey found many small businesses have less than two months of reserves and about 3.5 million are in danger of closing permanently over the next two months. And, nearly 7.5 million are in danger of closing over the next five months as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. A startling 63% of respondents said they have no online presence, which will need to change for our small businesses to be more resilient in the future. On the national level, MSA is partnering with other organizations to ensure the voice of small business is heard in Washington, D.C. and in state capitals across the country.

NAN: How is CMSC supporting Main Street businesses during this current pandemic?

CHRISTINE: COVID-19 is impacting all our downtowns across the state, but our Main Street members are collaborating to help each other. At CMSC, we started hosting a weekly Zoom call with our professionally managed members. Our Friday Zoom calls have no agenda, they’re a forum to talk, raise questions, or brainstorm ideas. Then we can share those useful comments and suggestions with the larger group via our weekly member email.

As I mentioned earlier, we also share the resources we learn about at the state and federal level with our members and they, in turn, pass that information on to the businesses in their communities through their own email networks.

NAN: Is CMSC focusing on any specific industries?

CHRISTINE: In terms of small businesses, one area we’re particularly focused on is the restaurants, which are crucial to the economic vitality of our downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts. We’re looking to the Connecticut Restaurant Association for recommendations because they’re the experts. While the federal government has come out with assistance programs for small businesses, such as the Payroll Protection Program, with the way their businesses operate, it’s not necessarily going to be as helpful for them. So, are there other ways they can get funding to survive? Whether that means we need to advocate with our state legislators or federal delegation, that’s an area we’re mindful of and trying to help however we can.

We’ve been looking to share practical information and innovative ideas. For example, a great marketing approach came from Simsbury, where the restaurants found that doing family meals was working well. Also, members in many towns are doing Downtown Happy Hours, which they then share on social media. Several communities have also implemented restaurant gift card incentive promotions, which have been well-received.

Well before the COVID-19 crisis hit, we were focused on the challenges of small retailers in the age of online competition and hosted an event called Retail in the Age of Disruption. We’ll need to closely monitor how mom-and-pop retailers weather this crisis and what kinds of support they need going forward. Things like shop local campaigns will be incredibly important to help small retailers recover.

NAN: What resources are available to help with reopening and reigniting local businesses?

CHRISTINE: There’s been a progression since the start of this situation from the immediate crisis of everyone having to shut down to learning what programs are available for assistance and now looking longer term at what will happen once businesses can reopen.

We keep hearing how helpful the Connecticut Small Business Development Center (CTSBDC) has been and that their consultants who reach out to towns and work with people have been a great resource for CMSC members and small businesses. Business counselors with the Women’s Business Development Council and SCORE have also been an important resource. Chambers of Commerce across the state have been great conduits of information to local businesses, too.

Looking forward, we heard from Tana Parseliti, Economic Development Specialist for the Town of Manchester, that the town is reaching out to businesses to survey them what about they’ll need when they reopen, whether it’s personal protective equipment or something else. Several communities are moving forward with surveys like this and the responses will help determine recovery approaches going forward.

Some of our other members in New London and Danbury are starting to talk about what will make customers feel comfortable. Is it knowing things are being sanitized? Is it outdoor dining to create more space around diners? Would that require a zoning change? Are there exceptions for that? It’s part of the innovation and collaboration we’re seeing in our member communities—trying to find solutions that help multiple small businesses while keeping everyone safe.

For example, there’s a bridal shop in Danbury where some of their dressmakers would typically be busy with prom and wedding season. Since that’s not happening, they’ve switched to making face masks. Now they’re looking into whether the town can purchase masks from the dressmakers and then supply small businesses with them when they reopen.

There are other questions, like: Are there certain programs that can be reallocated to help small businesses such as Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) or the Small Town Economic Assistance Program (STEAP)? If there’s some money for this type of program, can we change the usage for maybe a one-year term temporarily to provide more direct assistance to businesses?

Some local communities are also creating small loan or grant programs from whatever resources they can piece together. Community foundations like the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and others are stepping up to the plate and providing needed capital for small businesses. The State of Connecticut working with HEDCO created a program to assist women- and minority-owned businesses.

We’re all going to have to work together and find creative solutions. We’ve never seen anything like COVID-19 before, so we’re going to have to come up with answers we’ve never had before. We know downtowns around the state and country are having similar situations, and MSA has been a great resource. They created an excellent resource center that has a lot of information about supporting small businesses and community initiatives to help get our downtowns and businesses back up and running.

NAN: It sounds like there’s a lot of effort to find opportunities for collaboration.

CHRISTINE: Right. It’s all about thinking outside the box and talking with each other about our creative ideas. It’s sharing what’s working well and putting forward questions like: Does anyone have any information about landlords and rents? Can anyone provide any guidance?

We’re also getting into event season. So, we’re looking at more ways to start doing them virtually and, when we can all come back out again, what that’s going to mean. If you can’t have a big festival with a big crowd, what are you going to do? Do you make part of the experience virtual? Do you limit attendance or stagger start times?

It’s a collaborative spirit of knowing we’re all in this together, so let’s help each other out as much as we can and be as creative and innovative as we can. Even if we don’t have all the answers right now, we’re starting to ask questions so we can create some solutions.

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