The more things change in Asheville as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the more things stay the same — at least according to the Asheville Downtown Association’s latest annual survey. As explained by Meghan Rogers, the ADA’s executive director, during a virtual State of Downtown presentation Feb. 23, entrepreneurs have harbored some enduring grievances and persistent wants even as the coronavirus disrupts business.
Outside of pandemic-related challenges, the top three business issues remain virtually identical to those of previous years: downtown cleanliness, safety and parking for both visitors and employees. “It’s not an ADA meeting if we don’t mention parking,” Rogers said.
Respondents specifically cited a need for more resources for people experiencing homelessness downtown, followed by more cleaning and pressure washing of public spaces and sidewalks and an increased police presence. Waste management and boosting transit options to and around downtown were also identified as top challenges for downtown businesses, along with rent and other fixed cost increases.
But COVID-19 has posed a more immediate threat than those longstanding structural issues, Rogers explained. Of the 93 business owners and residents who responded to the survey, 17 indicated that they had a business in danger of closing as a result of the pandemic.
“This number, coupled with the dozens of businesses that have already closed or moved out of downtown, is troubling — and that’s putting it very mildly,” she said.
More than 70 respondents indicated that they had seen a loss of revenue in 2020, with about half experiencing a drop between 20% and 60%. Business owners also revealed that 261 people employed downtown had lost full-time work as a result of the pandemic, while another 216 lost part-time employment and 32 lost contract work.
“While it’s not surprising to learn that we saw a decrease in employment, it is heartbreaking. Because these numbers, they’re not just numbers: They represent people,” Rogers said. “I worry that when we lose our small, local businesses, we lose some of the character of downtown.”
Tommy Dennison, the ADA’s board president and director of member development at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, said that the association’s top priorities for 2021 include continuing to support downtown businesses through pandemic recovery, diversifying revenue streams beyond live events and advancing equity and inclusion.
Dennison said the association, which represents over 300 area businesses, nonprofits, families and individuals, will offer complimentary one-year memberships to any business located in the central business district in the coming weeks, as well as extend existing memberships for up to one year without additional costs.
The ADA also is working with Mountain BizWorks to provide five grants of $2,500 each to downtown businesses owned by entrepreneurs who are Black, Indigenous or people of color. More information about this initiative will be released in the next few weeks.
“We have a long way to go, but we believe that this grant program and our internal equity work will bring positive changes for our organization and our downtown,” Dennison said.
Rogers noted that the ADA relies primarily on income generated from events such as Downtown After 5, which also employ area music professionals, food vendors, waste management staff and workers from other industries. The lack of in-person events in 2020, she explained, represented a loss of roughly 85% in revenue for the nonprofit.
Despite that setback, Rogers said that the association still managed to invest roughly $60,000 into the local economy in 2020 through the virtual Downtown After 5 series, a virtual July Fourth event and other initiatives. The ADA is also poised to hold new and recurring events in 2021 once the pandemic is under control.
“When it’s safe and the time is right, we’ll be ready to bring music, food and fun back to the streets of downtown Asheville,” she said.
View the full results of the survey at avl.mx/920.