Uncertainty hangs over downtown businesses, events
By Ben Rodgers
GREEN BAY – When an organization relies on events and sponsorships to improve the community, a pandemic requires even more support with dwindling resources.
“Just like every other small business out there, we’re in uncharted territory,” said Brian Johnson, executive director of On Broadway Inc. “We’re doing everything we can to survive and make sure we thrive at the end of this.”
Johnson said On Broadway is able to support the district and help its 135 or so businesses because of events like the Farmers Market.
But because the organization’s budget is tied to those events, Johnson said it’s at risk to lose 90 percent of its revenue.
“We’ve already made reductions in our staffing” he said. “We applied for the Paycheck Protection Program and we were fortunate enough to be able to participate. Without it, quite frankly, we’d be in a much worse position than we already are.”
Johnson said he is hopeful the Farmers Market returns at some point this year, and his staff created eight different scenarios in which to hold reduced versions.
“The social component creates a unique event,” he said. “At the core of what that event is, it really is about the fresh food and the way we’re serving the community. As this thing continues to emerge, that’s our primary focus. How do we deliver that value? Recognizing it’s a social component will be an afterthought and allowed as the law allows.”
While plans are being formulated for what the Farmers Market will look like in a post-COVID-19 Broadway District, Johnson said On Broadway is constantly helping small businesses find a way to survive.
“They really run the gamut,” he said of requests from Broadway businesses. “That’s one of our core responsibilities to help them through this process. While some businesses are taking advantage of the downtime to make improvements,… other businesses are asking for assistance for the Paycheck Protection Program. Others never worked with a lender before… Others never had to aggressively market themselves.”
Johnson said the state projects as many as 35 percent of small businesses will be forced to close because of the pandemic.
He said national numbers suggest as many as 3.5 million businesses may close in the next 30 days and 7.5 million in the next five months.
“We want to be optimistic about the way our district will emerge from this,” Johnson said. “We also want to be pragmatic and recognize there is a downside from the pandemic, and we will do everything we can to mitigate it.”
Developments in the Rail Yard Innovation District continue to move forward as well as the Shipyard, which Johnson said shows there is confidence for the eventual rebound.
“We’re incredibly confident as a district we’re going to rebound from this,” he said. “What’s undetermined is the time frame and how impactful this will be at the end of the day.”
Across the Fox River, Jeff Mirkes, executive director of Downtown Green Bay Inc. and Olde Main Street Inc., said it’s difficult for a community to be successful without events, but not impossible.
“The charm of downtown is rooted in activity, and fun activities, unique events, a variety of things for people to do,” Mirkes said. “When you think about the Farmers Market and the concert events out on the City Deck, as we head into the new reality, everyone is dealing with the same uncertainty.”
He said close to two million people come downtown each year for events and recreation, which has been integral in residential development and business recruitment.
Like Broadway, Mirkes said Downtown and Olde Main events will be different when they return.
“This is a time of new ideas and creativity, but we know there has to be a very wise balance between public health and economic health,” he said. “It has to be balanced in everything we do. There’s a lot of watching and waiting and learning and looking at what other entities are doing and what other cities are doing.”
Regardless of external events, he said Olde Main alone is still home to five businesses starting up at this time, ready to be open when social distancing requirements are lifted.
“While historically all the color and life and fun and music has been why people go downtown, I think what we’re going to see in the coming year is businesses are investing, and improved developments are happening,” Mirkes said. “We’re very hopeful and optimistic that when people see construction, they say downtown is planning for the future.”