Folks in Hartwell are split about their comfort level for heading out to local stores and restaurants, according to survey conducted by Hartwell Main Street and the city’s economic development department.
But split or no split, business must go on, say some downtown Hartwell business owners.
The survey revealed that about half of the 88 people polled said they were ready to go dine in at restaurants and shop at local stores and about half wanted to wait. It was not an exhaustive survey, but it did give some insight into Hartwell residents’ willingness to venture out following the statewide stay-at-home orders brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“My takeaway is that half of the people are ready to get out and do things and half aren’t,” said Hartwell Downtown Development and Mainstreet director Jason Ford.
Respondents also indicated it may be beneficial for restaurants and shops to continue using some of the methods to connect with customers during the closures. More than 45 percent who answered said they would like to see options like curbside pickup permanently. More than half of respondents, 58 percent, said they would also like to continue seeing more online shopping options from locally owned, mom-and-pop stores.
“We as a Mainstreet organization want people to be aware that these other methods can fill gaps in business,” Ford said.
The impacts of the closures most hurt places like salons and barbershops, which could not operate at all. Other businesses, though, have said they were able to survive with minimal negative impacts.
Some businesses, like Common Ground Coffee Shop and 12 South Gallery, were undeterred by the closure orders.
Common Ground owner Ellen East bought the garage portion of an old car dealership on Carolina Street in December and had been working to renovate it so she and co-owner GiGi Macher could move their coffee shop Javasana to a more suitable location. They were nearly ready to open when businesses statewide were told to close.
“We had a lot of deep, heartfelt discussions about, ‘are we doing the right thing,’” East said. “We just decided to have faith things would get better.”
Javasana reopened as Common Ground as the first phase of restrictions were lifted by Gov. Brian Kemp in April. There was no grand opening celebration because of social distancing requirements, but the soft opening has gone well, East said.
“We have been supported by the community,” she said.
So far, she has seen people with varying levels of comfort coming through the door. Some people wear masks and touch nothing, others seem to be very comfortable with little to no protection measures at all.
“It’s an interesting time to be running a business like this,” East said.
It was also an interesting time for Deborah Taylor, owner of Twelve South Artisan Market in downtown Hartwell. She closed on purchasing the old Foothills Outfitters building on S. Carolina Street just a few days before Kemp signed the order to shut things down. The plan from the beginning was to move her gallery from it’s old location on South Forest Avenue around the corner. The order to close businesses to the public didn’t scare her away.
“The timing was a little strange, but it did afford us the opportunity to work on getting the new location ready and to distance ourselves by going between home and the gallery during the shutdown,” Taylor said.
Having to remain closed allowed her and her husband to focus on moving and readying their business to reopen with new and improved offerings.
“That’s scary enough,” Taylor said.
She plans to operate her design studio and art gallery in what was the main retail space for Foothills Outfitters, and is renting space to vendors in what was the old warehouse space behind it on Depot Street. Taylor said there is space for 12 vendors, four of those spaces are still available. So far there is an antique vendor, a potter, a metal laser-cut sign maker and a physical fitness trainer for senior-citizens, among others, who will occupy space there.
Merely opening for business is only half of the transaction needed to get locally owned small businesses thriving again, Ford said. It is likely to be a slower process for mom-and-pop operations than for big box stores, he said, but private investment like that seen on Carolina Street in downtown Hartwell — where a bakery and a home design studio and store are also set to open soon — will be key to getting to where the local economy needs to bed Ford said.
“What’s going to help our local economy is all the private investment,” he said. “I think we’re still in a wait-and-see mode, but it is looking up.”
He said private investors can still take advantage of tax breaks through the federal Rural Zones program, which have been a boon since they began in 2019. Common Ground is taking advantage of those and East said it was a major factor in her and Macher’s decision to expand and move to a larger location. Ford said 12 South and other businesses that are opening in downtown are eligible for the incentives as well if they rehab old buildings and create jobs, among other things.
Anyone looking for more information about Rural Zone incentives can contact Ford at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“If we want to see this thing come back together, get out support the local businesses,” Ford said.