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Sarasota Thursday, Apr. 2, 2020 2 years ago

Merchants seek assistance during business slowdown

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With rent and other expenses still looming during a public health emergency, storeowners and commercial landlords are exploring new arrangements.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

In late 2019 and early 2020, merchants on St. Armands Circle expressed frustration about a series of challenges affecting businesses in the commercial district.

Between the construction of roundabouts and the removal of trees on John Ringling Causeway, Circle business owners said traffic gridlock put a damper on the beginning of season. Still, as some of the lane closures subsided at the beginning of March, merchants expressed optimism they could make up for any disappointing months during the height of season.

Then COVID-19 hit.

On St. Armands and throughout the city, businesses are facing an unprecedented challenge during the time of year they rely on to generate a disproportionate amount of their income. Some stores have closed, either by mandate or by choice. Others are trying to find a way to keep generating revenue in the face of economic uncertainty while complying with public health guidelines.

“It’s devastating,” said Diana Corrigan, executive director of the St. Armands Association.

Despite a steep drop in business activity in the past 15 days, some expenses merchants are facing aren’t going away. In addition to payroll obligations, April rent was due just weeks after the COVID-19 response began to seriously ramp up in Sarasota.

Corrigan said she had heard from merchants whose revenue was down between 50-70% over previous years before emergency regulations went into place. That’s why, in addition to sharing information about business assistance programs with members of the St. Armands Circle Association, she’s been reaching out to property owners in the area. She has encouraged landlords to work with their tenants and consider rent forgiveness options for the next month or two if at all possible.

It’s an unprecedented step in her two decades of experience leading the Circle merchants group, but Corrigan felt it was necessary to try to help people during a difficult time that arose through no fault of their own.

“Everybody has to work together to get through this,” Corrigan said. “Landlords, merchants, residents.”

Landowner Mark Kauffman said he understands business owners are facing a catastrophic situation, and he’s taken steps designed to accommodate the tenants in his buildings. He has agreed to delay April rent if merchants apply for the small business loans funded through the federal coronavirus relief act, a policy he said he would continue if the effects of the pandemic extend into subsequent months. If a business is denied the loan, he said he’s willing to explore other arrangements, such as postponing payments or accepting a portion of what’s typically due.

Although Kauffman said he empathized with merchants, he also said property owners have their own expenses to account for, including mortgage payments. Still, he expressed a desire to collaborate with businesses to find solutions that address the needs of both parties.

“We cherish our tenants, we want them to stay in business, and we’re working with them,” Kauffman said.

Ron Soto, chairman of the Sarasota Downtown Enrichment Association, said he was most concerned about the viability of smaller independently owned businesses downtown. He has encouraged merchants to contact their landlords directly if they’re seeking rent relief or assistance.

“It’s harder for someone to say no when you’re talking to them in person [rather] than with a letter,” Soto said.

Both Corrigan and Soto expressed optimism the community would support local businesses while coronavirus protection measures are in place — and once things get back to normal.

“That’s my biggest concern,” Corrigan said. “We want to see every business survive. We want to see every business be able to open their doors and get employees back to work again.”

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