From the social distancing problems caused by the pandemic to the specter of racial and social injustice, today’s urban centers face unique challenges. By addressing these challenges now, Cleveland will be in a better position to fully recover once COVID-19 has passed. Indeed, Cleveland is faring better than many major cities around the globe.
“There is no question that this is a challenging time for Downtown Cleveland, but really downtowns across the U.S. and around the world,” says Michael Deemer, executive vice president of business development for Downtown Cleveland Alliance (DCA). “In our annual State of Downtown presentation given in partnership with the City Club and presented by PNC Bank, we had speakers from Denver and London who work with business improvement districts. Their feedback was very uniform: that this is a very challenging time across the board.”
Tami Door, president and CEO of Denver Downtown Partnership, who was on the virtual panel of the presentation last month, agreed that urban centers across the country are facing new challenges.
“I am still very bullish on urban centers,” she said. “We have about a 24-month window here in Denver where we are going to have to adjust to whatever this new normal looks like. But ultimately, people will return to big cities.”
Some professionals are a little less optimistic.
“Looking at London specifically, it could take a number of years before we are back to pre-COVID-19 levels,” said Ojay McDonald, CEO of the Association of Town and City Management from London.
People made the adjustment of working from home in London and are now reluctant to return to work, he added.
“There is not a lot of trust in public transport,” McDonald said. “London is very reliant on public transport.”
However, in Denver, there have been some signs that working from home has its own challenges as well.
“What we’re hearing from a lot of companies is that working at home started out really strong, but is beginning to weaken in terms of the deliverables,” said Door. “In addition, companies are having a harder time integrating new people into their corporate cultures and developing skill sets for the future.”
While Joe Marinucci, CEO of DCA, agreed that the community is facing similar challenges, it’s also looking at opportunities the current situation presents.
“We’re concentrating on strategies that will see us through in the near term, but also position us so we are a much stronger downtown,” Marinucci said, “as we come out of the pandemic at some point in the future.”
So, what are some of those strategies?
It starts with bolstering downtown businesses and helping them survive and thrive in the near term.
Earlier this year, in partnership with the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Cleveland Foundation, Greater Cleveland Partnership, Destination Cleveland, Historic Gateway Neighborhood Corp., Historic Warehouse District Development Corp. and corporate and civic leaders, DCA helped create the Downtown Recovery Response Fund, raising more than $1.5 million in funds to be used as grant awards to small businesses directly impacted when peaceful protests of racial and social injustice turned violent.
“We have had over 100 businesses apply and have been able to distribute funds to just over half of those businesses,” said Deemer. “The other half are in process. But, we are moving very aggressively to get those funds out of the door and into the hands of small businesses.”
So far, the impact has been clear. As you walk up or down Euclid Avenue, storefronts are open and active. Perhaps more importantly, the fund saved over 1,500 downtown jobs.
Like Denver, DCA also is encouraging downtown businesses to bring back employees safely.
“There is an added focus on communicating with office businesses downtown, encouraging them to safely and responsibly work with employees to bring them back downtown in a masked, safe and clean way,” said Deemer. “It’s not only important for our economy, it’s also better for business when we work in a more collaborative environment, when people have the opportunity to safely interact.”
Those office workers will also bolster restaurant and retail trade downtown.
“We have over 130 restaurants and shops that are open, and virtually all of the shops in the arcades are open,” says Deemer.