Tuesday, May 26, 2020

From Dave Wofford, Horse and Buggy Press

Dear Durham City Council, Durham County Board of Commissioners, Chamber of Commerce, OEWD, DDI, and Discover Durham folks.
**Long note here. Please print out, read, and consider.**
Preface: I am a small business owner who runs a design/publishing/arts company (Horse & Buggy Press and Friends) which includes two galleries, including PS 118 which I opened on Parrish Street in December. I am a micro-sized business in my 24th year of operation, based in Durham since 2003. I have two part-time employees and before the virus hit the plan was to move them closer to full time as we work to support the 40 plus local artists and craftspersons with work in our galleries, and dozens of writers whose work we design and publish.
Because I have a wide range of work I do, including commissioned design work not based on retail traffic, I’m not losing as much money as other retail/entertainment based businesses are currently. So I would not be applying or requesting grants that I mention below at this time. I was fortunate to receive a $1K organization grant from Durham Arts Council, a $500 grant from the North Start Relief Fund, and through Self Help I got a modest PPP loan. Those things are helping me enough at this point to limp through the summer which will be slow and I’m certain to lose money. I’m banking on things picking up in the fall (hopefully). But those kind of small things aren’t going to help larger independent retail or service businesses that are based on personal physical proximity and people density, and have higher rents, risks, and employee payroll.
I’m *deeply concerned* about our independent small businesses—especially the restaurants, niche retail stores and service shops, and entertainment venues that have played a *HUGE* role in building Durham’s reputation as a special place, as evidenced by the branding everywhere these days and Durham being recognized as "one of the best places to live/work/etc" (see the many awards from business and lifestyle publications over the last few years which have brought boatloads of new people here).
I know things are challenging on many fronts — but I’m disappointed that so little attention and focus seems to being given to the small independent businesses in our town. I hope you all agree it is unlikely that loans are going to help small independent businesses in hospitality, niche retail, and entertainment fields. We are losing money, and by and large will continue losing money when we re-open into the challenging climate we face. When we get back to full humming, which is likely quite far off in the future, we don't have profit margins like tech and pharm companies that allow for a recovery of losses. More debt is going to mean more businesses give up and shut down more quickly than if creative grant solutions and partnerships can’t be formed.
For years I've been reading about large six and seven figure tax incentives doled out to mid-size companies who move here, promise to employ more workers, or build new HQs or plants . . . so couldn’t we help our local small business infrastructure in a similar ways since there’s already a precedent for providing direct relief?
The word "innovation" is our new buzzword these days (thankfully "authentic" seems to have been removed from our lexicon), but I’m not yet seeing much innovation in addressing COVID-19 economic realities for independent businesses—especially considering that we have thrown our passions and personal resources into our businesses and are actively creating a local healthy and sustainable ecosystem, where we ensure spending dollars stay in this community instead of being funneled to out of town owned chain businesses.
In addition to the economic impact, independent small businesses make it fun to be in Durham, and are proactively turning the region into a better and more interesting place along the way. Others, from all across the region and have taken note, often moving their families, larger businesses, and festivals here. The buzz created by our cultural establishments drives huge amounts of people here (and their spending dollars) that then benefits *many* others — including real estate developers (increasingly many from outside the area), and small and large companies alike (local contractors and trade services, realtors, nationwide franchises like auto dealers and the chain stores that have proliferated in South Durham). It's a ripple effect and a rising tide lifts all boats (or almost all).
I think the only way we are going to cultivate an ecosystem where small independent business, and especially event and retail-based endeavors, are going to whether this storm is by bringing new ideas, thinking creatively, and employing models beyond the normal, and quite narrow, corporate and big business chamber of commerce style models of thought that only look at a very small number of inputs. (how much in property and sales taxes do they pay? how many employees are on payroll?).
For sure the process of designing aid packages deserves to be more transparent so people know what is going on — and so there could be new ideas coming from a plurality of sources.
If we lose a big chunk of our independent restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, niche retail, etc, Durham could easily become just another generic American small city with suburban sprawl issues, widening income gaps, and ho-hum cultural offerings (Southpoint mall has a movie theatre!; Cats is coming back to DPAC! The Bulls are playing a double header on Saturday!) People will stop coming around and spending money—as visitors and as new residents—and then we likely become a university town with some medical and tech and big pharm businesses and not much else. Boring. Economically stagnant. and quite possibly with a bunch of empty condoplexes we wonder what to do with? And landlords with high vacancy rates in business and retail districts.
Again, I sympathize that these are large challenges but they need to be met head on and with new strategies and FAST. Hopefully people that are receiving this letter are working on working on targeted aid programs—based on need—and securing grant funding through public private partnerships like those that float all kinds of debt to large real estate ventures; are thinking about budgets and micro and macro economics; and have been following the trickle up theories espoused by folks like Mark Cuban? and will do so in a transparent process so the businesses involved can provide feedback and their own ideas.
More PPP style loans aren’t going to help local small businesses that should not be fully opening now in a virus controlled climate. We sure as hell don’t want to see a spike in viruses because we go back to the old normal. But don’t we want places like the Fruit, Blue Note Grill, Pinhook, Motorco, and the myriad independent restaurants, niche retail, etc to be around for the long haul? Isn’t the fabric of independent businesses across town worthy of direct relief payments like real estate ventures that get large tax avoidance loopholes for bringing their buildings here? The cumulative effect of the small businesses does the same thing, we bring lots of money in terms of shoppers here, and we don’t require such a large capital investment in new infrastructure (new water and sewer lines, more stormwater and pollution problems from more impermeable areas, bigger and new roads, etc).
In the past I believe the city and county have helped fund ventures like DPAC, the new Bulls Stadium, and Carolina Theatre to become jewels of our area. I hope this thinking can expand to other venues who don’t need nearly as much as was doled out to those ventures which have proven that stimulus funding can ripple out in positive ways.
For starters, I hope things will move forward with the plan to turn some downtown blocks into pedestrian outdoor dining zones, including allowing alcohol sales outside. Restaurants are not going to be able to make profitable numbers work with 50% occupancy, so moving things outside seems a way to safely bring more folks out as we move to “the new normal.” We have a unique opportunity as not many of these blocks are heavily car trafficked and thus would not negatively impact cross town traffic. More people milling outside for food and drink would likely help neighboring retails shops (more eyes on them while folks eat/drink.) Big thanks to all the folks that worked to get the plan in place!
Thanks for your time and energies, for considering the points raised, and finding concrete ways to help the small independent businesses that are hurting and have helped Durham become an interesting place with a robust economy. Hopefully there is a way to find partnerships with local, regional, and national organizations to provide direct relief to independent businesses before a majority of them fall off the map and we lose a valuable part of our community that does much for this area.
Dave Wofford
Get Off of My Cloud

*we have raised over $1600 thus far for the NC Restaurant Workers Relief Fund from this fundraiser auction)

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