When describing a quintessential Eastern Shore scene, many people will talk about the crab feasts and boating of summer or street festivals in autumn. But for me, it’s always been those crisp mornings and warm afternoons in March and April, the trees dotting the streets around the Mid-Shore, the white flowers falling from a Bartlett Pear being the last remnants of anything snow-colored. More importantly, springtime puts our sidewalks to use again, bringing people back to Easton and other historic downtowns around the region. It’s the kickstart that our small businesses need and look forward to every year to carry their shops and restaurants through the next few seasons.
Every year until this spring. This spring, the downtown streets are empty. The stores are shuttered. Some of our shopkeepers come in for an hour or two, maybe to check the mail or pause their orders, maybe just out of habit. But there are no customers around, at first because of a growing fear of the looming virus, and now by law.
Unfortunately, this has become the norm very quickly in towns and cities across America. And what is more frightening about this current crisis is that it feels there is not much we can do about it. Stores continue to close, restrictions continue to be passed, and what is most uncomfortable is that we do not know when it will end or, more importantly, what will be left of our previous lives when the dust settles.
However, for all the things that we cannot control, one thing we can is the debt we continue to lay upon the feet of our Main Street businesses and entrepreneurs. While this shutdown will have an effect on businesses of all sizes, it’s the small shops — the pharmacies, pubs and boutiques — and the people that patronize them that craft the identity of a town. If you want to save your community, you must save these downtown retailers and restaurateurs, and one piece of that puzzle is for our commercial property owners to create a rent relief plan. To save our historic communities, our commercial landlords must pause rent collection until the state of emergency is lifted.
While landlords around the region may brush off this idea as too radical or dire, the truth is that taking this action now may just save their tenant’s business and their future revenue. And while the cost of several months of rent relief may certainly be significant, it will be far less than the cost of marketing, repairs and sitting on an empty building if that currently closed storefront becomes a long-term vacancy. Without the cash flow coming in from the local community, this hypothetical is a very real possibility, and we need those that can make an immediate difference to step up in this time of need.
This request may be progressive, but it’s not unprecedented. In fact, it’s happening now in Detroit. Bedrock, Quicken Loans chairman Dan Gilbert’s real estate venture, has announced that they will forgive small business rents until July. It’s not only earned the firm some recent goodwill, but it has also secured financial stability for their small business tenants in an area that desperately needs it. Bedrock isn’t alone in this initiative either, and I applaud the owners that have stepped up, including some locally, to be proactive in this time of need.
As much as we may want it to, the economy is not going to snap into place once social distancing requirements are eased. In addition to grants and low-interest loans that states and the federal government are championing, measures need to be taken now by the Mid-Shore’s commercial landlords to ensure our small business community makes it through this unfamiliar crisis. No matter what we do, we have to come to grips with the fact that our world will look different than it does now as this pandemic plays out. How much that perspective shifts, however, is largely dependent on the deeds of those that can afford them right now.
Ross Benincasa is the executive director of Discover Easton.