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Challenges for our Main Streets

Joe Nathan Big

Back in the late 1970s, I was working with Baltimore city on the Community Economic Development Program. Among a number of priorities associated with CEDP was augmenting an already existing program, the city’s Commercial Revitalization initiative. This was an effort designed to strengthen and sustain the city’s traditional retail corridors,

The theory was that these established corridors, places where people did their grocery shopping, visited their pharmacy and local doctors’ offices, went to the bank or the post office, and occasionally had a meal out at a neighborhood restaurant, were the cornerstones of neighborhood stability.

These commercial streets added to the identity of their surrounding neighborhoods. The generally small establishments provided part-time jobs to local youth and, perhaps, second jobs for other family members. And, these locations might have a local coffee shop or a favorite drinking spot where people could gather with their friends and neighbors.

For all these reasons, investments to support these commercial corridors, known today in the profession as Main Streets, were thought to be worthwhile. The investments were on a modest scale: free architectural design consultation to improve the exterior appearance of shops; small grants to accomplish recommended façade improvements; and marketing support for special events, holiday programming and other celebrations.

These commercial corridors were found in all parts of the city. They included the area along Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown, “The Avenue” along 36th Street in Hampden, the York Road corridor. Some, such as “Corned Beef Row” on East Lombard Street, have withered on the vine as the result of changing consumer tastes

As the program has evolved over the years, now directed by the Baltimore Development Corporation, it includes Bel Air-Edison, Hamilton-Lauraville, Pigtown, Waverly, and several more centered on public markets, including Fell’s Point, Federal Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue,

Interest in preserving these Main Streets extends beyond the city. Revitalization efforts have focused on places such Catonsville and Dundalk in Baltimore County, Ellicott City in Howard County (even before the devastating flooding events), and in Westminster and Bel Air, the county seats of Carroll and Harford counties, respectively.

Interest in commercial revitalization eventually went statewide, with the Maryland Main Street program in the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

‘Culturally devastating’

All of these efforts are now in jeopardy.  The economic shutdown ordered to thwart community spread of the coronavirus has a disproportional impact on the small shops and, especially, the restaurants and bars on these older neighborhood shopping streets. According to a survey conducted earlier in May by researchers at Harvard Business School, University of Illinois, and University of Chicago, at least 2 percent of small businesses have already permanently shut down.

It is even worse for the restaurant industry. According to the National Restaurant Association in March, two months ago, 3 percent of restaurant operators had already gone out of business. And, we are still not close to seeing these establishments operating at breakeven capacity.

As of early May, an estimated 4.2 million businesses had received stimulus loans under the emergency program administered by the Small Business Administration. But this represents less than 15 percent of the nation’s small firms.

Also, 75 percent of the loan amounts must be dedicated to payroll in order for the loans to be forgiven.  For many small shops the fixed costs such as rent, utilities and insurance represent a larger portion of their operations; the business loan program is ill-designed for their needs.

The businesses on our Main Streets typically depend on one another. As one shutters, others are likely to follow.

“This is culturally devastating for communities. Small businesses really help communities with a sense of identity and place,” said Patrice Frey, president of the National Main Street Center, as reported in the Washington Post. The center is the principal advocacy organization for traditional commercial hubs.

The Main Street Center recognizes the grave threat facing these locations. It has created a COVID-19 recovery resource center, Main Street Forward, on its website, mainstreet.org. There is planning and research to assess the impacts of the current public health/ economic crisis.  There is also a call for more resources.

The center is advocating that the U.S. Congress include $100 million in an upcoming round of stimulus funding to meet the unaddressed needs of main street businesses across America. The proposal would include a $75 million fund with a 1:1 match to state or local funding in support of citywide or statewide  programs.

Another $25 million would be in the form of direct support to businesses to align with current needs, including transitioning to online retailing, changing marketing strategies and implementing social distancing guidelines.

Joe Nathanson is the principal of Urban Information Associates, a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. Since 2001, he has written a monthly column for The Daily Record and can be contacted at urbaninfo@comcast.net.

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