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With New Restrictions Likely, Downtown Already Struggling

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Mar 27, 2020
As city officials consider more restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus, many downtown merchants are in flux trying to maintain business any way they can.

“I think we’re all sort of living under a constant state of fear and unknowing … but I’m finding, downtown, they have been extremely aware and diligent. There are days I will go there just to be by myself at work. But there’s nobody on the street, except people pulling up to pick up lunch or dinner. It’s like a ghost town," said Terry Espy, president of the Downtown Business Alliance.

Orders issued by Gov. Roy Cooper have closed bars and restaurants to in-house dining and other establishments as a safety precaution during the coronavirus pandemic.

The DBA and Wilmington Downtown Inc. (WDI), shortly after the order to close bars and restaurants, started gathering names of eateries still serving customers and helped to organize designated pickup areas downtown with the city of Wilmington.

WDI generated a list of downtown restaurants and retailers still offering services to the public one way or another.

"Some have found this approach as a decent backstop," Ed Wolverton, president and CEO of WDI, said. "A few decided that it was not worthwhile and stopped. Several shops are bolstering social media and online sales."

But for some, however, it's been hard to stay in business.

“I’m hearing from several of the restaurants that they are doing fine. They are not making the profit, but they are breaking even. Some of them are not," Espy said.

WDI is updating the list daily, Wolverton said. 

“I think most are really struggling right now," he said.

Wolverton said there's different consumer segments in the marketplace, "and there is such connectivity between these different market segments,” adding that much of that connectivity has been limited with many different downtown businesses that normally bring in foot traffic, like restaurants, bars, and theaters, having closed their doors.

Espy, at her commercial brokerage firm MoMentum Companies, however, has see contracts moving forward just this week.

“But we have done weird things, like we’ve changed the contracts to state that the start date, when the clock starts ticking on the contract, it would be the day that the state of emergency is lifted and I think that gives people confidence to plan on the future. All and all there’s continual forward movement. I’ve only had one [client] that has said, ‘I’m going to wait until this washes out,’" Espy said.  

New Hanover County has declared a state of emergency in the wake of the coronavirus, which also applies to the city of Wilmington. 

But during a budget workshop Friday, city council members took some time to discuss the possibility of imposing further restrictions. They heard a presentation from Philip Brown, chief physician at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, who said restrictions help send a message about the seriousness of the highly contagious, deadly illness.

Should the city issue more restrictive orders, that could impact the ability of some establishments downtown to remain in business.

Others, such as Outdoor Equipped, have applied ahead of time in case such measures are put into place, said Chad Hankinson, president and CEO of Outdoor Equipped.

Its downtown retail location, 272 N Front St, has closed and will remain closed until the restaurants and bars open up. 

“As the downtown community is so oriented around restaurants and bars … having the store open doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Hankinson said.

Its online business and warehouse operations, however, are ongoing, Hankinson said. 

He is seeking essential business designation because he said he feels it is "playing a key role for products" for first responders, medical professionals and others in emergency response, he said.

Orders from its downtown retail shop are being processed once a day by an employee, he said. The business currently has 25 employees on the books.

The company has submitted its formal application to be designated as an essential business on Thursday, he said. He has not yet heard back.

"I don't see it as a problem. A lot of our manufacturers have got the designation ... We feel that we could get it to be able to sell directly to the customers."

Wolverton also said he is also closely monitoring the stimulus package, keeping an eye out for measures that could help downtown businesses. 

"The state unemployment changes are also helpful. Speed will be key. We know from past roll-outs that the application system will likely be overwhelmed. This will slow down aid," he said.

But should downtown be impacted further by the virus, Wolverton said that though it will be difficult, the city can bounce back, citing the city's recovery after Hurricane Florence.

“I’m pretty optimistic going forward. We have a great entrepreneurial spirit in our community, and in downtown, I think that folks that are here are going to do everything they can to survive. If we do have some losses, I do think there are entrepreneurs …. to fill voids that might occur," Wolverton said.

"The combined growth in our downtown population base has been a real key for revitalizing downtown,” Wolverton said. "But make no mistake about it: it’s going to be hard."

Cece Nunn contributed to this report.
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