Downtown Wilmington is home to nearly 900 businesses and provides revenue to over 10,000 workers. Since the current health crisis, retailers have closed their doors. Restaurants and bars—well, that choose to stay open—offer curbside and to-go orders only. As COVID-19 continues to progress, the repercussions of the virus consequently do the same.
The pandemic has left Americans and citizens across the globe with a giant question mark hanging over our heads. When will everything be open again? When will we be able to go to work again? When will it be safe to go through the world without the worry of our health—and health institutions—being compromised? It also begs the question: What happens to businesses forced to remain stagnant until they can re-open?
Last week Wilmington Downtown Incorporated (WDI) announced a grant program, in partnership with the Longleaf Foundation, to help sustain local businesses during all these uncertainties. The grant will function as a re-open, re-stock, re-cover (Re-3) program, and assist in maintaining business operations. Funding will be granted up to $3,000 within the downtown area, including the central business district, Brooklyn Arts District, Castle Street to 17th Street, The Cargo District and the South Front (SoFo) District.
The program began when local philanthropic foundation, Longleaf, approached WDI with a sizable financial donation. Longleaf and WDI quickly put together a nonprofit donor-based program within days, and a donation of $20,000 from Griffin Estep Benefit Group, a Wilmington health insurance agency, soon followed. Ed Wolverton, CEO of WDI, says it was quickly realized the original donation wasn’t able to meet the demands of the large number of businesses seeking help. So, they opened the program to the public, accepting individual donors which has increased revenue to over $44,000 from multiple donors.
A similar program, comprising a task force of small business owners and donors, called #OverFlo was implemented by WDI in 2018, after the destruction of Hurricane Florence. While funding for the new Re-3 program is derived from a collection of different donors and organizations, funds for #OverFlo were split evenly between six beneficiaries: Nourish NC, Salvation Army, Food Bank of Central & Eastern NC at Wilmington, Good Shepherd Center, Cape Fearless Challenge and the Harrelson Center. The final payout of #OverFlo was over $137,000, as funds from a number of downtown-focused events—such as a Lukas Nelson concert, a golf tournament and merchant donations—were raising money for the cause.
Due to our current pandemic and unfortunate rules of social distancing, that luxury does not stand for the new Re-3 funding opportunities. With this program, Wolverton says there is need for immediate relief. “While we know government loans are going to be an option, many small businesses need money fast and some are already carrying debt.” The program will offer relief within the month to those businesses without a plan B.
According to Gwenyfar Rohler, fellow encore contributor and owner of Old Books on Front Street, business as normal is a far-away wish. “It is looking pretty bleak,” she says candidly. The Re-3 grant would be somewhat of a saving grace for the modest business.
Along with desolate aisles of the bookstore, Rohler has lost all income from the nightly rental, literary-themed loft above the bookstore, plus her literary-themed bed and breakfast, Between the Covers, on Market Street. She says business was only beginning to recover from the financial blow of Hurricane Florence. Thus they were not prepared for the current health pandemic.
After Florence Rohler borrowed money to keep all her staff on payroll at their normal rate and hours per week. “There wasn’t much in the way of a financial buffer when this thing hit,” she notes. “We were on track to get two of those three loans paid off this year and to continue some improvement projects to the building and the business.”
With funds already tight and most of their yearly revenue derived from summer months, Rohler is unsure what the future holds. Now her only solace lies in her staff being able to collect unemployment under the governor.
“We have applied to the Small Business Association (SBA) and have received a deafening silence,” she says. “We have had no luck trying to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Right now, my plan is, if I can keep the electricity bill paid, we can get re-open, even without water and internet.”
Celeste Glass of Second Glass, Downtown Wilmington’s upscale wine and food pairing restaurant, shares a similar story. The restaurant has been running since November of 2018, after a three-month delay opening, due to destruction from Hurricane Florence. While many restaurants in downtown Wilmington are choosing to offer curbside and delivery services, Glass has shut her doors completely. “The type of food and cuisine we’re doing doesn’t travel very well,” she says, “In order for me to do [takeout,] I would have to reinvent my whole business concept.”
Her main priority now, is focusing on reopening once the stay-at-home order is lifted. Glass has made frugal money on retail wine, but doesn’t want to deplete her inventory.
“If we can open in two weeks, I need to start bringing in employees,” Glass says. “The week before we need to prep a whole new menu, I have to pay for labor, I have to order food for the menu, product, alcohol and things like that to sell.”
While Glass recently received approval from the PPP she likely will not receive the funding for months. The Re-3 grant could provide Glass, essentially, with enough finance backing to sustain business through their reopening until steady revenue is generated.
WDI will continue to accept grant applications for the program through April 17, and will announce funding recipients by the 20; they’ll distribute funds that same week. Wolverton says if the pandemic lasts longer than expected, WDI will not leave the business owners of Wilmington to flounder.“We are going to keep accepting donations for this program as long as the need exists,” he says.
Although the state of the country and our beloved town is in jeopardy, the sense of underlying community remains the same. It matches the many natural disasters we’ve faced through the years, living in hurricane alley.
“This is another example of how our community comes together during a difficult time to help each other,” Wolverton says. “The leadership skills of the WDI board to nimbly and quickly redeploy the organization’s resources to envision and run the Re-3 program is inspiring.”
For full details on the Re-3 grant program visit wilmingtondowntown.com.