It was the worst of times, it was the weirdest of times. It was 2020, the year of the coronavirus pandemic.
For many small business owners in the region – especially those dependent on visitors and indoor operations – impacted by restrictions to slow the virus’s spread, 2020 was a year of tough decisions. Along those lines, Kris Testori ended up shutting down her Wilmington escape room business because of COVID-19.
Operating Port City Escape, where people would come together to solve puzzles that would allow them to “escape” different scenarios, didn’t seem safe anymore. Testori’s husband, Doug, would know firsthand: before he retired, he was an oncologist, treating people whose immune systems were compromised.
“The numbers [of people testing positive for COVID-19] just keep rising every day, and to that end, he just didn’t want people to be exposed to each other and confined in a high-touch area,” Testori said in early December.
She also had financial concerns.
“I did a lot of corporate team-building,” Testori said. “When I looked at the numbers: Corporations are not going to be spending money on inside team-building. They just can’t.”
Those in the business world in the Wilmington area all have slightly different stories to tell about the way things played out this year, punctuated with lessons learned the hard way.
Some industries, like real estate and those catering to outdoor activity such as bicycle shops, did very well, while others are still hurting. Both flourishing and struggling businesses have had to change the way they do things, from Zoom meetings to remote working.
“We’re now rethinking everything,” said Adam Jones, regional economist with UNCW’s Swain Center.
The federal Paycheck Protection Program, part of an economic stimulus package passed soon after the pandemic shut things down, provided a lifeline to some businesses.
As of Aug. 8, when the PPP closed, Wilmington-based Live Oak Bank had lent more than $1.7 billion to more than 11,000 borrowers nationwide, including to 740 businesses and organizations in the Wilmington area.
One of the hundreds of businesses that operate in the Port City that benefited from the PPP was Stone Theatres’ Wilmington location, The Pointe 14.
“We were very fortunate that we were able to secure those for our theaters, so we were very happy and very pleased that we were able to continue to keep our employees on the payroll and provide them with eight weeks of consistent income,” said Dale Coleman, vice president of Stone Theatres, in August.
But later, the movie theater industry’s struggles continued as it also lobbied for federal government assistance. No further help for movie theaters nor any kind of second stimulus had come to fruition as of press time.
“I believe 2020 has been a year of surprises, one after another. Through each week, we have been presented with new challenges,” said Natalie English, president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce. “Some sectors of our economy have been impacted in ways that they haven’t, or may not, overcome. Others have either innovated or changed in order to survive. Still, others have capitalized on the changing economy.
“As I reflect, we’ve learned many things,” she added. “Going forward, we will need to assist small businesses, those that currently exist and those that will be created, to apply those things toward future sustainability and success.”
Susan Riggs, owner of The Savannah Inn at 316 Carolina Beach Ave. North, saw nothing but negatives at the start of the pandemic when her business was shut down in March and April, a normally busy time.
“With the pandemic and everything, I really thought that this year was going to be horrible,” Riggs said.
But since May, when hotels were allowed to reopen, “I have never been busier,” Riggs said. “It’s been a bizarre year, very busy, very successful, higher rates, higher percentage of people coming and longer stays.”
The beach drew visitors even in off-season months, as people were able to work from anywhere and kids didn’t have to be physically in school to receive instruction.
“I guess people had cabin fever and they just needed to get out of the house,” Riggs said. “It’s looking like the offseason is going to be busy too. I got a lot of business over Thanksgiving. Christmas and New Year’s, I’m full.”
But success for small hotels and short-term rental owners was not indicative of the tourist industry as a whole.
Shifts due to visitor concerns about safe travel have “created a tale of two destinations for Wilmington and Beaches,” said Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority.
“During the summer months and into fall New Hanover County’s Room Occupancy Tax collections have increased over the prior year; however, the distribution is uneven,” Hufham said. “ROT at our island beaches is up over the prior year, yet Wilmington ROT remains significantly down. This is because travelers during COVID-19 are opting for wide, open spaces and vacation rentals, most of which are located at our island beaches.
“Visitors are opting for beach over urban vacations, and also because meetings, conventions, groups and events are still on hold due to gathering size restrictions, Wilmington lodging has been more negatively impacted than beach lodging.”
Wilmington lost locations for large retailers this year, some that had already been struggling and for which COVID-19 seemed to be the last straw.
They include children’s clothing retailer Justice, which had a store at Mayfaire Town Center on Military Cutoff Road and another at Independence Mall, 3500 Oleander Drive. Pier 1 Imports, another Mayfaire tenant that had a second location at Hanover Center on Oleander Drive, also closed its doors for good.
National clothing retailer SteinMart, which also had a location at Hanover Center, held its store closing sale in August.
But even as some national chains shuttered, others began welcoming Wilmington shoppers as they established a presence here. Discount grocer Lidl opened at Independence Mall on Nov. 18.
“In just under one year, Lidl has successfully opened two stores within our community,” said Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo at the time. The other Lidl is on Eastwood Road.
The grocery store was part of a multi-million-dollar redevelopment of Independence Mall that has replaced the Sears and Sears wing with exterior-facing storefronts. Another national retailer, Five Below, joined Lidl and Dick’s Sporting Goods as one of the new mall tenants, opening in September.
The restaurant industry, which was booming in Wilmington before COVID-19, was hit especially hard by state restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the virus, from a ban on indoor dining to later only being able to open at 50% capacity.
Revenues plummeted for many establishments, and some restaurants, especially those that were struggling already, couldn’t survive. One that closed early on was downtown Wilmington restaurant and bar Stalk & Vine.
“Our 9 months of operations were riddled with a short first summer, Hurricane Dorian, the first slow winter, and then the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Stalk & Vine owner Zac Brown in a Facebook post on May 29. “The fact of the matter is Stalk & Vine didn’t have enough time to develop the foundation needed to navigate that series of events, particularly this pandemic.”
On Dec. 7, the National Restaurant Association shared its findings that 87% of full-service restaurants (independent, chain, and franchise) were reporting an average 36% drop in sales revenue.
“What these findings make clear is that more than 500,000 restaurants of every business type – franchise, chain, and independent – are in an economic free fall,” said Sean Kennedy, the association’s executive vice president for public affairs, in a letter to Congressional leadership. “And for every month that passes without a solution from Congress, thousands more restaurants will close their doors for good.”
The association reported that as of Dec. 7, 17% of all restaurants in the U.S. – 110,000 – had permanently closed.
In Wilmington, some restaurants found an outlet with outdoor dining, including downtown restaurants taking advantage of the Downtown Alive program that closed streets and allowed the eateries to use parking spaces to expand.
But restaurants need help on a much larger scale if more are going to be able to survive, according to the national association.
Kennedy said, “In short, the restaurant industry simply cannot wait for relief any longer.”
Despite the bad news, Jones sees hope for the future, especially as a vaccine is introduced.
“We’re at a point now where we can use this disruption, setting aside the way we used to do things to completely rethink, step forward and open up the options, as these technological constraints are relaxed,” Jones said. “But the social aspect of us isn’t going away. So this summer, when things start opening up, watch out, as people come to Wilmington and the beaches and head to the mountains, as we all try and fill that hole that’s sitting there from this lack of social interaction over the last year. That said, I can’t wait to get to 2021, and the opportunities that come with it.”
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