Shelley Smith

Shelley Smith

Over the past few months, Motlow’s Department of Workforce Innovation has hosted a series of collaborative Zoom meetings between community organizations across the region including chambers of commerce, economic development agencies, industrial development boards, community development representatives, local nonprofits, and business leaders. Informally referred to as the MotlowTrained Community Collaborative, the group has met regularly on Fridays to discuss concerns, as well as to share what has or hasn’t been working within each community in response to the economic distress caused by the pandemic.

As an example, the Chairman of South Jackson Civic Center, Greg Gressel, shared his experience conducting a SJCC Zoom Party, a shining example of an organization making a pivot to continue operations such as fundraising activities under the shut-down. According to Gressel, “In planning South Jackson Civic Centers Zoom Party, we wanted to make sure it was fun, informational and entertaining. Usually we would have some events at South Jackson to inform the public about the Big Payback giving opportunity. We have done events like “Backstage at South Jackson” – an invitation-only wine and cheese event, as well as “Karaoke on the Mainstage” – a karaoke event open to the public. This year we were challenged to step out of the norm and find new ways.” The Zoom party launched the Capital Campaigns Drive and featured industry friends and celebrities with a connection to the Tullahoma community and SJCC.

Steve May, Director of Jack Daniel’s Marketing Operations, Lynchburg Homeplace, recently shared that as landlord, Jack Daniels continues to offer rent abatement to all of its tenants located in downtown Lynchburg. While this is extremely commendable and sets a shining example for national organizations invested in real estate with enough dry powder to pull it off, it is somewhat of an anomaly locally. Indeed, in downtowns throughout the region, the businesses that own their buildings outright were better positioned to withstand the crisis and its repercussions, which continue to unfold.

Now, even as Tennessee goes through steps to reopen its economy, one of the greatest fears expressed by downtown and Main Street businesses everywhere is navigating new and ever-changing regulations. As the state looks to reopen the economy, an entirely different set of standards is being introduced. These standards are acutely felt by restaurants and bars, many of which serve as anchors for downtowns throughout Middle Tennessee. Many restaurants rely on alcohol sales as a source of revenue, and it is difficult for many owners to conceive of how to make cash flow projections pencil out while operating at 50 percent capacity with bar areas closed – a dilemma that has prompted many recent Friday discussions within the MotlowTrained Community Collaborative about possible solutions to help these small businesses make it work.

As the group’s discussions increasingly centered on keeping local small businesses operating and supporting downtown revitalization, the concept of creating the space and the means for outdoor commerce quickly emerged as a possible pilot initiative. As it turns out, the group’s discussions paralleled those in other communities nationwide, especially as it pertains to helping restaurants and bars. City leaders in Portland, Maine, are currently weighing a pilot plan to help downtown businesses persevere by creating an open-air market. If Portland adopts the plan, the city will be the second community in Maine to help local retailers, especially bars and restaurants, survive the economic effects of the pandemic by stopping through-traffic for an extended period of time. Tampa, Florida, recently launched a two-week pilot initiative closing strategic local streets to create outdoor public spaces, giving residents more room to eat and shop yet feel safe as part of the community’s “Lift Up Local Economic Recovery Plan.” A quick Google search reveals countless other examples, and the concept of temporary open-air plazas has planners and urbanists buzzing on Twitter.

As a preliminary step, the City of Tullahoma has decided to distribute a survey to residents and business owners about how comfortable they would feel with introducing this concept. The survey requests that citizens share their attitudes toward dining and shopping as business begin to re-open. According to Community Development Director Winston Brooks, “To help inform a thoughtful response to the lifting of business restrictions in our community, we must start by gathering understanding from both consumers and businesses. With the information gathered through the Consumer Sentiment survey, we will be able to share this information with local businesses to help guide them in best practices for re-opening.” The survey is available at facebook.com/tullahomatn.

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