Reporting, writing and photos by Abbey Marshall
After more than two years, Main Street is finally fully open to car and foot traffic.
But for the businesses that remain, the removal of construction cones may not be enough. They’re also trying to weather a pandemic that has sent most of the downtown workforce home.
Phase 1 of the $31 million construction project at the heart of Downtown Akron was completed at the end of September. The Main Street Corridor Project, which began in July 2018, required years of work for infrastructure improvements including new pavement, sidewalks, lighting, landscaping, a roundabout at the intersection of Mill and Main Streets and more.
Those two years of Akronites weaving through fenced-off sidewalks, dodging potholes and, according to one business owner, occasionally climbing over “road closed” signs to reach their favorite lunch spots put a huge dent in small businesses’ revenues.
“It’s been really rough,” says Adria Buzek, owner of Chameleon Cafe at 23 S. Main St. Buzek said construction alone knocked down sales by about 25% over the past two years.
“People climbed over road closed signs to get to us, used the back entrance that comes from the parking deck by the library,” she continues. “We had people that would send us private messages and say they would try to get to us for lunch and couldn’t find a way.”
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Cilantro owner Charlie Somtrakool says business at his Thai and sushi restaurant dropped about 20% over the past two years.
“Two years!” Somtrakool says. “The road in front of us was closed down with people unable to drive. That’s a long time.”
Then COVID-19 swept across the nation, and downtown businesses felt a second punch to the gut.
“It’s impossible to articulate how difficult it has been to be a Main Street business downtown,” says James Hardy, Akron’s Deputy Mayor for Integrated Development. “The city needs to own that construction that impacts Main Street businesses in a large way, but with COVID, that was the double whammy for them.”
As people fled their downtown offices and businesses implemented stay-at-home protocols, the Main Street restaurants that rely on lunch traffic felt the effects immediately.
“The people working downtown who were trying to reach us before aren’t even here anymore,” Buzek says. “First Energy employees make up a huge percentage of Downtown employees and our customers, and they’re working from home through at least the end of this year.”
On top of the 25% revenue loss Buzek attributes to construction, Chameleon Cafe lost an additional two-thirds of its sales due to the pandemic. When a gubernatorial order shut down dining options and forced take-out-only options in March, Buzek closed up shop for five months until, financially, she could not stay closed anymore. Chameleon Cafe reopened in August with safety protocols and new measures to bring in business, including delivery to a small downtown radius.
The silver lining of the pandemic, Hardy says, is the city and county’s ability to provide more relief funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Summit County, in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce, was able to allocate some of that federal funding to small businesses.
To date, Hardy says, Summit County and the Chamber have dispersed more than $11 million in small business grants countywide, not just on Main Street.
Summit County Council has approved a third round of small business grants.
And prior to the pandemic, the city rolled out a downtown relief program for businesses affected by construction — meaning either on Main Street or adjacent to it. Through that program, the city dispersed $210,000 in the form of $10,000 grants that could be used for a multitude of purposes from rent to subsidizing employee pay.
But for some, that assistance isn’t enough. Several businesses have already shuttered, and others are on the precipice.
“We’re downtown, but with not only so few people working downtown, there’s also no reason to come here compared to summers past without concerts, baseball games, stuff like that,” says Aaron Hervey, owner of Crave at 57 E. Market St.
After Hervey told staff members he would have to make some “very hard decisions” following several months of little business, his general manager launched a GoFundMe page to #SaveCrave. It’s garnered support from over 110 people, raising nearly $9,000.
Since launching the GoFundMe, Hervey says there’s been a small spike in business, though he isn’t sure if it’s because of the attention Crave has received from the fundraising site or because more people are deciding to go out. He’s hoping it’s the latter, because while those funds help pay the rent, they need more business to sustain their restaurant.
While some contemplate closing, other businesses are beginning to open their doors now that construction is complete. Marge Klein, owner of the Peanut Shoppe of Akron, reopened on Oct. 13 after being closed for nearly 7 months.
Marge says while business suffered during construction, she was usually able to make it up during summer events and concerts at Lock 3 just across the street, but she knew that was impossible this year.
Fortunately, she says, the reopening was a huge success.
“I was worried, but today was a good day,” she said on Oct. 13. “I really have a lot of faith that things will turn around down here now that people can come down Main Street.”
A vibrant downtown, but ‘out of what?’
When Ryan Pritt, co-founder and president of Pritt Entertainment Group at 201 S. Main St., moved his company into a new building, he wanted to remain downtown. He believes in the vision the city has for downtown: a hub of dining, residential living and retail.
“We love downtown enough that we chose to invest in it by purchasing and renovating a building,” he says. “The idea that [our building’s renovation] and the Main Street construction project are getting wrapped up at the same time is exciting.”
Pritt — as well as many other downtown workers employed at larger firms such as First Energy or banks — doesn’t rely very heavily on foot traffic. The only real inconvenience construction imposed was loud noise and the occasional confused client trying to find the entrance in a sea of traffic cones. He says he’s excited to see the street he’s working on fill up with places he and his employees can enjoy outside work.
“We were attracted to downtown because we wanted that liveliness and vibrancy,” he says. “We wanted people to go out to lunch, bike on breaks, go to a baseball game after work; whatever they wanted to do.
“There are some short term frustrations,” he continues, “but in the big picture, we’re very excited by the progress and it’s setting up the city and downtown in a really nice way that long term.”
But the current situation is a far cry from Pritt’s vision for what downtown will become. The Main Street project was described as a stepping stone toward that goal. But between the years of construction and months of coronavirus, many businesses are wondering if they’ll make it to the finish line.
For some, it’s already too late.
Claire White opened Apotheclaire, a salon geared toward high-end natural and organic products, at 70 E. Mill St. in 2016. She says her corner of downtown was once a bustling block, as pedestrians drifted down Mill Street through Sweet Mary’s Bakery, Rubber City Comics and Nuevo Modern Mexican & Tequila Bar, which was also a casualty of the construction.
“It was like it filled up like magic,” she recalls.
But that magic dissipated quickly once Main Street construction started.
“The streets downtown became a maze,” she says, saying her shop lost all foot traffic when the city closed the intersection on Mill Street. “It made no sense. It took out any incentive for downtown employees to go somewhere for lunch, and then, by extension, they wouldn’t pass by my salon.
“Business was killed.”
She says the city didn’t do anything to help her, and she was never notified about the construction project or kept up to date on its schedule.
“We were doing well, and it broke my heart. We were this close,” she says, squeezing her thumb and pointer finger together, “but we had to close.”
The city’s mission is to achieve a vibrant downtown, but White wonders, “out of what?”
Hardy says while the residential aspect of the downtown plan — which includes converting high-rises like the Bowery and Law Building into apartments — is continuing as scheduled during the pandemic, the vision for a commercial area is temporarily on pause.
“The retail and commercial piece is a large, large question mark,” Hardy says. “We have to be honest with ourselves that it’s going to be incredibly difficult. We need to focus on keeping what we have.”
Downtown Akron also has other projects in the pipeline to drive people downtown, such as the Knight Foundation’s recent announcement of $2 million to redesign and rebuild Lock 3, new murals at the Civic Theatre in Lock 4 and the Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area (DORA), a new zone that allows Akronites to take alcoholic drinks outdoors in Locks 2, 3 and 4.
All these projects aim to get people downtown and patronizing businesses, though, as Hardy notes, the pandemic poses a unique challenge: “Creating all of that in the heart of downtown will hopefully drive people there when we open things up, but should we really be drawing people downtown in large numbers right now?”
Construction isn’t over yet
Although Main Street is open to traffic, construction isn’t over. Some sidewalks are still blocked and cars have to navigate a few lingering traffic cones.
“I’m just kind of mad about how they managed the whole construction [project] and left it as an unfinished mess for two years now, and it’s still not done yet,” Somtrakool says.
And businesses are bracing for another round of closures.
Phase 2 is coming.
With the help of $13.5 million in federal, state and private funding, construction will ramp back up on Main Street to continue improvements from Mill Street to State Route 59, including additional turn lanes, a cycle track connecting to the Towpath trail, parking spots, room for sidewalk cafes and more.
For now, the city says Phase 2 will be limited to sidewalk closures for the remainder of 2020, but roadway closures will begin early next year and stretch into 2022.
Even still, sidewalk construction harms businesses that were hoping to recoup pedestrian traffic that had been lost.
“I totally see their views for the future: it’ll be absolutely stunning and will attract more business, restaurants, stores. People will want to live down here,” says Buzek, who says the street and sidewalk in front of Chameleon Cafe will be torn up during Phase 2.
“We don’t want to leave downtown,” she continues. “We love the people down here and the customers. Once it’s done, it’s going to be absolutely beautiful and attract a lot of new companies. We’re going to see restaurants, grocery stores. It’s going to be trendy. It’s just trying to stay above water until that happens.”
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.