Taking Care of Business on Main Street

Examining the role and power of downtowns and how communities are pivoting amid a pandemic.

Downtown Madison, Indiana
Downtown Madison, Indiana (Photo by Greg Sekula)

Mobilizing for Main Street

Long before “shop small” became a byword for supporting local businesses, Main Street America knew the power of investing in downtowns. For more than 35 years, the national program has focused on supporting and revitalizing city centers. Today, 128 Indiana communities have Main Street programs.

This spring, Indiana’s Main Street organizations provided a lifeline to businesses forced to close their doors during the pandemic. They served as cheerleaders and became information clearinghouses—collaborating with community partners on relief strategies and sharing the latest on local and federal aid programs. They counseled business owners selling online for the first time, and many stepped forward to offer economic assistance.

In Madison’s historic commercial district, one of the state’s largest, a survey revealed business owners’ top concern was making rent and mortgage payments. Working with the Community Foundation of Madison and Jefferson County, Madison Main Street offered grants reimbursing up to half of a business’s rent or mortgage costs in the month of May.

Downtown Madison, Indiana

As coronavirus forced business owners around the state to close their doors, Indiana Main Street programs offered financial, strategic, and emotional support. In Madison, Madison Main Street promoted local businesses and offered grants reimbursing mortgage costs. (Photo by Greg Sekula)

In Shelbyville, the Main Street program partnered with the Blue River Community Foundation and Shelby County Development Corporation, paying local attorneys to help small businesses apply for disaster relief loans or paycheck protection.

Now, Shelbyville Main Street is deploying its own downtown dollars—a reward typically offered during its popular summer wine walk and local shopping event—to give small business owners a boost. For every $25 spent on local business gift cards, Shelbyville Main Street will provide $10 downtown dollars to spend at local shops through September. “It was taking a spin on something we’ve done before and making it more relevant,” says Director Brandy Coomes.

Amid the shutdown, Cagney’s Pizza King, a downtown Shelbyville staple since the ’70s, boosted its existing carryout and delivery services and expanded its delivery radius. “The gift cards and downtown dollars were very beneficial. Main Street did a great job pushing people to locally owned businesses,” says owner Scott Furgeson. “We’ve found out what our community is made of and have been fortunate to have people support downtown.”

In Lawrenceburg, the City and Lawrenceburg Main Street partnered to award more than $270,000 in emergency grants to small businesses. “The City committed that if they were in business before COVID, we are committed to them staying in business,” says Michelle Cone, director of Lawrenceburg Main Street. “We have done so much work on economic revitalization of our downtown, and we are not ready to backslide. Losing our merchants is backsliding.”

The Framery, a 40-year-old Lawrenceburg custom-framing business, moved downtown into a nineteenth-century commercial building a little over three years ago. Along with receiving one of the city’s emergency grants, the business participated in Lawrenceburg Main Street’s virtual tour showcasing local shops on social media. “It is going to take a while for us to come back. None of us can afford to advertise right now, so Main Street is doing lots of promotion for us. We had a great response to the virtual tour,” notes owner Mary Helen Crook.

This spring, Jeffersonville Main Street hired an artist to create inspiring chalk art messages through downtown. (Photo courtesy Cortlan Waters Barley)

Normally, shoppers fill downtown for Madison Main Street’s monthly “Fourth Fridays,” April through November. Not wanting to lose those customers, the organization took the event online, featuring videos of shop owners showcasing their businesses, and providing contact information so viewers could follow-up for purchases or gift cards. “It was so successful that I think we may make virtual First Fridays an ongoing event in the winter months,” says Austin Sims, director of Madison Main Street.

In one video, Thomas Family Winery hosted a virtual tasting highlighting its wines, as well as homemade breads, cheese, and charcuterie available for pickup at the business’s location in a 1850s livery stable and carriage house. “Madison Main Street is the world’s most constructive cheerleader. We’ve relied on them to propel the things we’ve done,” says owner Steve Thomas. “It’s so good knowing they are on our side and we can call them for advice.”

Downtown Evansville got creative in drawing shoppers, providing travel-size bottles of hand sanitizer with every $25 spent at local businesses and creating a virtual tip jar to provide relief for service industry employees. The group’s blog, “Heart of Downtown Evansville,” posted uplifting stories amid the crisis and introduced readers to businesses in the downtown economic improvement district, which spans 110 city blocks.

One of those newest businesses, Entwined Wine and Cocktail Bar, opened in a rehabbed nineteenth-century commercial building on Main Street just three weeks before the statewide shutdown. To stay afloat, the bar made its wine, beer, and other spirits available for carryout and delivery, using the federal paycheck protection plan to keep paying staff. To raise its profile, the business started a video series on its Facebook page, highlighting its wines and demonstrating how to make favorite cocktails. As in-person dining reopened, the bar worked with Downtown Evansville to set up temporary outdoor seating.

“There’s a small window to take advantage of it being enjoyable for al fresco dining in Indiana,” says managing partner Morgan Lemond. “Downtown Evansville was critical in waiving hurdles and helping us get temporary seating set up since our permanent setup isn’t in place yet.”

Further along the Ohio River, Jeffersonville has undergone a downtown renaissance in the past few years. To maintain downtown’s upward momentum, Jeffersonville Main Street launched an online crowdfunding campaign, raising over $15,000 for grants to local businesses. To lift spirits, the organization hired local artist Cortlan Waters Bartley to create inspiring chalk art messages on sidewalks in front of downtown businesses.

“We’re trying to save places for people,” says Jay Ellis, director of Jeffersonville Main Street. “These small businesses in downtown aren’t big faceless corporations. They’re our friends and neighbors and part of the fabric of our local community and we want to do everything we can to see they can survive this.”

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Indiana Preservation, Indiana Landmarks’ member magazine. 

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