The Downtown Improvement District hopes partnering with merchants on improvement projects will help draw customers during a challenging time.
When Matthew Johnson started planning to open a business on Palm Avenue in downtown Sarasota, he imagined he would benefit from high-volume foot traffic and tourist activity in the core business district.
When Johnson was ready to welcome customers into his store, SRQ Smoke and Vape Shop, reality was far different than his expectations. The shop opened in June, in the midst of the public health emergency associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
All things considered, Johnson said business could be worse. Still, headed into his first season, the benefits of a central location weren’t what he had hoped they would be.
“Things that were givens — events, all hotels at max capacity — all those things aren’t happening,” Johnson said.
The Downtown Improvement District, a self-taxing group of commercial-property owners in the downtown core, are concerned about the effects of decreased activity in the heart of the city. The group has spent months discussing possible strategies for responding to the economic effects of the coronavirus, including increased advertising and enhanced lighting.
Beginning this month, the DID is embarking on another prong of its coronavirus response strategy. The group has set aside $200,000 for a grant program that will help fund storefront improvements and sidewalk cafes for downtown businesses. The maximum grant for an individual business is $5,000.
DID Chairman Wayne Ruben said that he felt motivated to launch the grant program after seeing a merchant attempt to repair an awning using duct tape and paint. When he asked whether she could just replace the awning, he learned that wasn’t financially feasible, considering the circumstances.
“She was having a hard time paying rent, so she certainly can’t put an awning up,” Ruben said.
The DID opened grant applications Nov. 1, with submissions being judged on a first-come, first-served basis. As of Nov. 9, the board had received three applications, one of which came from Johnson. He requested $3,183.05 for new signage with illuminated letters.
Even amid an unprecedented economic challenge, Johnson was optimistic that a higher-profile sign could make a major difference for his store when it came to drawing in new customers.
“When you have something lit up and bold lettering, your chances are a lot higher,” Johnson said.
During an Oct. 6 meeting, while expressing his support for the grant program, DID board member Ernie Ritz said the actual beneficiary of the improvement projects would be downtown property owners.
“This isn’t really for the merchants,” Ritz said. “This is for the property owners. This is repairing their property, and they deserve it. They’re the ones paying all of the taxes — and I know it’s passed down through [leases], but it’s the property owners.”
Ruben disagreed, stating business owners would benefit from refurbished properties, too. One of his tenants, Beaver Shriver, agreed with Ruben’s perspective. Shriver is a managing member of Mojo Coffee and Nye’s Cream, a store working to open in a space Ruben owns at 1534 State St.
Shriver’s grant application seeks assistance with a suite of improvements for his storefront, including awning signage, planters, outdoor seating and heaters. Shriver said the team behind the business, which will be run by individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, felt particularly motivated to find ways to draw people into the store, given its mission.
Like Johnson, Shriver is dealing with the challenges of starting a business during a pandemic; he said Mojo Coffee and Nye’s Cream is working to open by the end of the month. He said any sort of financial assistance is welcome in this economic environment, and he thinks the DID is backing the types of projects that will serve the goals of both merchants and property owners.
“As you walk along, checking out businesses, if there’s something that looks really nice — it’s got a fresh sign, nice plants out front, the place looks jazzed up — it’s going to make you look closer,” Shriver said.
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