It’s certainly no secret that it’s been a tough year for downtown business owners. First, the pandemic closed doors. Then, the violence that occurred at the end of May offered yet another challenge.
But as the saying goes, “every cloud has a silver lining.” This lining appears to be shining a lot brighter than most, to hear downtown small business owners tell it. Following the violence that grew out of the May protests, downtown business owners have found a new sense of purpose, resiliency and community.
Jon Manning, an aspiring restaurateur and entrepreneur with business offices in downtown, recalls the events of the May 30 protests.
“It was a very weird day,” says Manning, who with his wife, Laura, and partners, Jenna Murphy and Jeremiah Perkins, recently opened a Caribbean-themed restaurant called UJerk Chicken. Manning also maintains downtown offices for a second business and lives downtown. “My wife and I were a part of the protest, but things started getting out of hand, so we went home. About two hours later, we started getting calls about vandalism to our store. So we went back down. It was total pandemonium.”
What started out as a peaceful protest had become violent. Like other downtown entrepreneurs, Manning fully understands the anger surrounding the injustice of the death of George Floyd and other intolerable incidents across the country. But he doesn’t understand the violence and vandalism.
“What was truly remarkable was that the very next day, people came down to help with the cleanup,” says Manning. “It shows the resiliency of our downtown community — of how people can come together to help one another and help get businesses back on their feet.”
Manning is not alone in his admiration for resiliency and heart of the downtown community. Charles Eisenstat opened Pour Cleveland to create a premium coffee experience for the denizens of downtown.
“It’s true that we have had a lot to tackle this year,” says Eisenstat, whose Pour Cleveland will be seven years old this Thanksgiving. “We actually shut down before Gov. Mike DeWine shut us down. As sales dropped because of the coronavirus, I told our employees that we would be closing, at least temporarily.
“So when our windows were broken out during the violence, we were closed, so it didn’t really impact our business.”
Despite the broken glass, Eisenstat is still enamored with running a downtown business.
“I love Cleveland, I love the energy our city has when everything is normal,” he says. “It’s just that nothing has felt very normal since March. While I am worried about the short-term viability, at least for my business, I know that long term everything will come back.
“I’m still very bullish on Cleveland. We have a lot of small businesses, and the small business community is simply great.”
Rather than reconcept Pour Cleveland, Eisenstat is waiting for things to return to normal.
“With COVID-19, we’re still pretty much in a holding pattern,” he says. “We wouldn’t want to reconcept and retool and then have to change everything back to the way it was once the virus has passed.”
STRENGTH IN CLEVELAND
Derek Millender is the Cleveland Cavaliers head strength and conditioning coach. He also is the owner of Rise Nation, a high-intensity, interval training studio located on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland’s Gateway District.
“Like many other businesses, we were shut down in March and remained closed. We were just working on creating trial classes and getting our staff ready for new procedures. We had a great first class the morning of May 30,” says Millender, who also lives downtown on top of the Rise Nation studio. “We felt good about being able to open under new guidelines, but then that evening, things changed for us.”
That day and the next, Millender went through the entire spectrum of emotions. “The first was fear in the realization that we had been vandalized,” Millender recalls. “I went downstairs to see if anything had been stolen, and I could hear someone walking across the broken glass. So I pulled the fire alarm to scare them off. It was a very scary night because it seemed like it went on for hours.
“But the next day, people started to reach out to help us clean up and put things back together. We had clients come down. We had our staff. And our team was so well organized that we actually went next door to help Geiger’s and then went across the street to the Schofield Hotel to see how we could help them.”
“The amount of support downtown received on May 31 was so uplifting that it gave us all hope and courage that we were doing the right thing by having a business downtown,” says Millender.
“I still love the downtown community,” adds Manning. “Our downtown is going to thrive, and entrepreneurs will find new ways moving forward, developing new strategies just like people did before COVID-19 or the recent violence. We will find a way to navigate through these problems.”
DOWNTOWN CLEVELAND ALLIANCE RAISES FUNDS
Almost immediately after the violence of May, Downtown Cleveland Alliance (DCA) launched a fundraiser called the Downtown Cleveland Recovery Fund to help the stores and restaurants that had been damaged during the violence.
DCA expects to use the money to replace and augment plantings; expand a workforce development program that employs residents of downtown-area shelters in summer landscaping jobs; assist with a social outreach program that helps homeless people get birth certificates, clothing, medical supplies and transportation; and help retailers rebuild.
Joe Marinucci, DCA’s president and CEO, acknowledges that some businesses are likely to require more aid than the recovery fund can provide.
“We’re having a much broader conversation about the needs of businesses that were directly impacted by the violence, whether it was external or internal business disruptions,” he says, referring to talks between the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and business groups.
“At this point,” he adds, “we really can’t talk about any details. It’s too preliminary. We know that this is a really important question, so we’re working very hard.”