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City, chamber, downtown alliance working to assist small businesses amid Covid-19 restrictions

Thursday, April 16, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

With many businesses either closed or operating with restrictions caused by the Covid-19 health crisis, the Downtown Austin Alliance and Austin Chamber are gathering data from local business owners about the types of assistance they’ll need to stay open for the next several months.

By the end of the week, the alliance expects to complete a survey of many of the 875 retail storefronts in the downtown area. The survey asks about lost revenue, layoffs of employees, anticipated reopening needs, and what forms of loans or other assistance business owners have sought to stay open.

The data will be compiled next week and paired with previously gathered information from the consulting firm Live XYZ that shows foot traffic along Congress Avenue has dropped by 88 percent since mid-March, when the city implemented a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Next week the alliance plans to release another survey that will gather market information from property owners in downtown Austin to get a comprehensive snapshot of the state of retail and office space tenants.

Pam Power, vice president of marketing and communications for the DAA, said the survey findings will help the group develop a strategy to help business owners return to more normal commercial activity once restrictions are relaxed in the coming months.

“We’re trying to figure out who’s been impacted and to what level,” she said. “Have they had to furlough or lay off employees, and if so how many. Or to what degree has revenue been impacted, keeping in mind there could very well be some verticals that are experiencing an increase. We’re trying to capture how much of an increase or decrease there’s been.”

Power said the surveys can be used to help businesses plan how to reopen safely while continuing social distancing and other safety protocols. It is also possible the aggregate data for the area could be used to determine eligibility for new rounds of state or federal assistance.

“We can advocate for additional aid and forms of aid, and so to the degree that we can use the data to secure any kind of grant, we’ll do that,” she said. “Marketing is obviously going to play a very big role in this once downtown and the rest of the city is back open. So it’s a question of what level of support can we provide from a marketing perspective, and then educate building managers and property owners how to prepare the spaces so everyone feels safe and comfortable.”

The chamber’s ongoing survey has received more than 400 responses to date and suggests that many small businesses are dealing with similar issues, no matter their size or industry.

Jonathan Packer, senior vice president of customer experience for the chamber, said those common difficulties will make it easier for the chamber and other groups to create assistance programs once the city and state begin to loosen stay-at-home restrictions.

“If you look at the top ways businesses have been affected, most are seeing a decline in business, many are canceling events, setting spending restrictions and having to do mandatory remote work policies,” he said. “The majority of businesses are dealing with the majority of the same issues. It will take us a while to get a sense of the full quantitative impact, but the chamber has done a lot of one-on-one communication and for the last several weeks there’s been very specific information they’re looking for about things like how to make payroll this week or things related to the federal stimulus.”

Local businesses in need of short-term funds to cover payroll, rent and other capital expenses will soon have a new option in the form of a bridge loan program from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that the city expects to open next week.

Sylnovia Holt-Rabb, deputy director of the Economic Development Department, said the $35,000 loans come with the same requirements as the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program loans that are currently being processed and distributed.

The city has hired consultants to assist business owners who need help completing the loan applications, with that assistance coming on top of free online classes and other resources available to entrepreneurs.

Holt-Rabb said more than 200 people have completed an online course since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We saw this in 2008 when the downturn happened, that a lot of people said since they have the time that maybe they should get their small business up and running and really give it a try,” she said. “It’s not a short-term fix, but we need medium and long-term strategies to get things working again.”

Graph courtesy of the Downtown Austin Alliance; photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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