Thursday, February 22, 2024

Swaine: Work of DDA essential, even during COVID-19

by BIZ Magazine

2020 has been a dumpster fire, a ‘zero’ on a scale of one-to-ten, the worst blind date ever. 

During the early days of COVID as Governor Edwards told folks to stay at home, I continued to come to the office at the Downtown Development Authority, not to flout any rules, but because I felt like our work was essential. I knew that our downtown stakeholders— small businesses and property owners; people whose livelihoods depended on continuing to operate— felt alone and needed someone to share the latest rules, regulations, and rumors as we all adjusted to the hated ‘new normal.’

No one was quite sure of what to do or how to do it, and everyone struggled to make the much mentioned ‘pivot’ from one type of business (one that was not making money) to another (one that was). During this period of maximum stress, my office staff of one and I scoured the Internet looking for COVID best business practices, held conference calls and  Zoom-type meetings to talk about federal and state business grants, kept up with and shared information on unemployment changes and searched for banks willing to help non customers with federal CARES Act loans. We printed decals on how to wash hands and where to stand and secured and handed out hard-to-get sanitizers, bleach, and quick read-thermometers. We texted, called, and dropped in on downtown business friends who, like us, were having a hard time keeping up with what day it was.  Foot traffic downtown plummeted, street traffic evaporated, office buildings were empty.

It was just a matter of getting over the rough spot— or so we thought— but articles started to appear predicting the ‘end’ to downtowns as we know them. Office occupancy in Manhattan dropped to a remarkable 5%, prognosticators predicted crowded downtown Chicago residents would begin to move en masse. Downtown revitalization happening across the country seemed on the verge of a reversal as people began touting the efficiency of working from home and need for ample social distancing away from office buildings and elevators. 

There are certain things that may make a rebound tougher in a place like New York; things like long commute times and much more crowded conditions, that should not affect cities like Shreveport. Governing Magazine recently reiterated that the many reasons people love downtowns will be the same after COVID as before. One was the need for entertainment. COVID has changed a lot of things but none more than the way we spend our free time. Robinson Film Center, Sci-Port Discovery Center, the Shreveport Aquariums, our casinos and restaurants, art galleries and events are all making tentative come backs. Are they self-sustaining in our current ‘normal’? Not really. They, like other businesses, are blowing through lines of credit and cash reserves but they are seeing gradual improvement, increasing numbers and interest. Bars and large events like the Red River Revel and Louisiana Film Prize have been especially hard hit, with little help in sight. For many of them, the challenges faced are completely out of their control. Some bars have been able to convert to restaurants in a limited fashion, the Louisiana Film Prize is using all of its significant skills and moxie to put on a virtual event that people will want to pay to see, still others like the Red River Revel and Mudbug Madness opted to sit 2020 out.

Governing says our desire to be around other people hasn’t gone away and the facts around COVID don’t prove that urban density is making more people sick. In fact, scientific reports show cases have been more prevalent in the suburbs than in city centers. A Brookings study came to the same conclusion. “ While diseases will come and go,” it said, “we can always retrofit our cities to make us feel safe while still delivering the proximity we crave.” You can see this in businesses, buildings, and restaurants in downtown Shreveport. When you claim a seat to a movie at Robinson Film Center, no one will be seated anywhere around you. A meal at any of our restaurants puts you far away from other diners. Elevators are limited to a maximum of two riders. Talk has shifted from downtown offices being vacated to the need for MORE office space to allow a flip from open concept space to individual offices that offer walls and some physical barriers. 

There is currently a flurry of real estate activity downtown as developers look at incentives afforded by our Opportunity Zone and Historic Tax Credits and see buildings that are well-priced and ready for rehab. Though things are not back to anything approaching normal, new businesses are opening and others are making plans to, and event producers have learned how to provide group gatherings that are both fun and safe. Downtown continues to be a draw. 

There is no doubt there is a long road ahead and we don’t know exactly where it will take us. We will need to continue to support those businesses, venues, and organizations we want to survive and spend our money locally as much as possible. We will wear our masks, wash our hands, and sanitize up a storm to protect others and ourselves. More than anything, we WILL come back, and it will be a wonderful thing when we do. 

Liz Swaine | Executive Director, Downtown Development Authority.