Downtown businesses fight to stay afloat

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Springfield’s downtown was not immune from the coronavirus pandemic, and some would say it was hit the hardest.

From bars to nightclubs, to restaurants, retail, hair salons, theaters and event centers, COVID-19 brought nearly everything to a halt downtown. And now that the city is on its path to recovery, the effects are unknown.

“There’s still a lot that remains to be seen,” said Rusty Worley, executive director of the Downtown Springfield Association. “Businesses have been exercising entrepreneurship and creativity to change their business models and adapt. Many have done a great job … but there’s a lot of uncertainties.”

According to recent results from Springfield Business Journal’s 2020 Economic Growth Survey, most businesses in the Queen City only had enough cash on hand to withstand the 12 weeks following the survey in early April, and respondents expected it to take 16 weeks for the community to reach a new normal.

For one business owner, the city’s phased approach to recovery wasn’t enough to keep his doors open. Owner Scott Morris of Falstaff’s LLC, a 6-year-old downtown sports bar and restaurant, shuttered for good in mid-May, after a two-month temporary closure.

Morris said his business was dependent on sales in the spring to survive the summer months when college and sports traffic slows. Without being operational nearly all of spring, he had to make a tough decision. “I have trouble breaking even at 100% capacity, let alone 25% capacity,” he said. “When I closed on March 18 and said I would open in October, I had my doubts then.”

Morris owns the building at 311 Park Central West and has two residential tenants in the upstairs lofts. He said he’s likely to keep the building and rent out the space of his former bar, though he said it’s unlikely he’d find a prospective tenant in the coming months.

He said with many offices closed downtown and no sports to watch, his bar couldn’t survive. “It was heartbreaking because it was my dream to have a bar. … We thought we had established ourselves,” he said. “This was supposed to be our best year and it ended up being our worst.”

According to reopening phases outlined by the city, retail businesses and restaurants will be required to limit customers based on a formula until June 14 that divides square footage by 30, then multiplies by 25%. Two more phases are scheduled to last through July 23 with a 50% multiplier to determine occupancy. Restaurants and bars also have to restrict counter seating and self-service buffets, according to the city’s plan. City leaders have noted that the phases may be further restricted if another wave of COVID-19 cases emerges.

“I do think most downtown businesses will survive,” said DSA’s Worley. “Our landlords and property owners have tried to be responsive and work with their tenants. Everyone’s recognized we’re all in this together.”

However, Worley said he anticipates a few shops will close their doors in the coming months.

“Quite a bit of this will hinge on what happens in the fall and if we can get students back here in Springfield and find new ways to have restaurants, nightlife and community events,” he said. “That’s what our downtown economy is built on.”

Morris agreed but added COVID-19 anxiety will likely take away business from nightclubs, bars and restaurants for the foreseeable future. “I haven’t heard anyone else say they’re going to close yet,” Morris said. “I think everyone’s trying to tough it out. I’m pulling for them.”

Looking forward
For those who have adapted, the fight isn’t over, says David Bauer, owner of Harbell’s Grill and Sports Bar LLC.

Located two doors down from the former Falstaff’s bar, Bauer said he’s spent the last two months rethinking his business model.

“I’ve just been trying to make profit out of pennies,” said Bauer, adding he’s preparing for a potential second wave of cases. “We’re just going to have to evolve. … The customers are going to be there. We just have to make sure that we align how we do our business to what comes at us.”

Bauer said the restaurant’s sales volume is “way down,” but things started to look up when he set up a drive-thru behind the restaurant, which backs up to a public parking garage. “We were on track to do better than last year. We were going to be up another 30%, and we actually were down to 15% of our annual sales with the drive-thru traffic,” he said, adding the restaurant is back up to 45% of its annual sales after reopening.

Like Morris, Bauer owns his building, which he said has been a game-changer for his business during the pandemic.

“I’m glad I don’t have a $15,000 a month rent note or big payments on my equipment, because those things are going to be difficult for people,” he said. “Those payments don’t stop; they keep coming.”

Brina Thomas, owner of Five Pound Apparel LLC, also has gotten creative in recent months with the company’s T-shirt Club, which is a subscription service of five new t-shirt designs shipped over five months. Declining to disclose revenue, she says the downtown and Farmer’s Park stores have seen a significant dip, though not as drastic as it could have been.“We would not have survived without having an online presence already established,” she said. “Right now, everyone’s trying to stay alive and stay open for business. Downtown is the lifeblood of the community.”

She credits Five Pound Apparel’s loyal customer base, which she says most established businesses in town have.

“The newer businesses in the downtown area haven’t had that chance to build that community and support structure. I’m more worried about the newer businesses,” she said.

Opening shop
Meanwhile, a handful of entrepreneurs are going all-in downtown.

Both Classic Rock Coffee Downtown and art shop The Bonzai Guy opened in early May, said Worley, and BillyNeck Food Station isn’t far from its opening at Brewery District Flats.

The sandwich shop, originally a Battlefield food truck, was initially expected to open in March, according to past SBJ reporting. Owners did not return requests for comment, though Worley said he expected an opening in the coming weeks. “People locate downtown because they value community,” said Worley. “We’ll be better positioned to weather the storm than many other places will be.”

The former Hoover Music Co. building, at 440 S. Jefferson Ave., also has a new owner. Mike Oddo, founder of real estate software firm Market Maker, says he’s planning to move his company from its 2633 W. College Road office to the former music store by the end of the year. His software generates leads for real estate agents throughout the United States and Canada. Also in the pipeline is the Willoughby Wright Beauty Bar. The salon is slated to open July 1 at 318 W. Walnut St., Ste. B, said owner Charlotte Bulluck.

Bulluck said the downtown space had the right ambiance for her concept, and she believes service-oriented businesses will have a stronger comeback from COVID-19. She plans to hire up to 10 employees to lead the opening and plans to keep face mask guidelines in place for the foreseeable future.

“It’s about consumer confidence, and everyone needs to do their part to build that confidence,” she said.