Small shops work with city, state to keep afloat and social distancing from becoming social disaster

Small shops work with city, state to keep afloat and social distancing from becoming social disaster

With entertainment and restaurants shutdown, downtown Detroit is almost empty. Auto plants have come to a halt. Throughout the region residents are bouncing off the walls from social distancing.

The coronavirus has left its mark on Detroit, and small businesses across the region are nervous.

Calling on their Motor City determination. small businesses are working together along with organizations and state and local governments to keep social distancing from becoming a social disaster.

These hometown economic trailblazers have been a pride of Detroit and one of the major reasons for its transformation to a bustling city. Now these small businesses are facing some hard times.  However, through grit, creativity, technology, and maybe some money from outside sources, they are facing the uncertain future head-on.

“We are using everything we can now, and are trying to be creative,” says Sweet Potato Sensations owner Espy Thomas.

Many restaurants are offering carry-out or delivery, but it’s not enough. For most, businesses have slowed down, and, in many cases, it doesn’t let them keep people employed.

Sweet Potato Sensations in Old Redford has been around for 32 years and has become a neighborhood hotspot. Part of its charm is it is an eat-in bakery, where people can enjoy the atmosphere, the company of friends and take their time.

With Governor Gretchen Whitmer closing all non-delivery restaurants that is no longer an option.   Owner Espy Thomas has noticed the slowdown in just a week and is trying to push back.

“We are using everything we can now, and are trying to be creative,” says Thomas.

For the time being she is still delivering to stores and bakeries that sell her products and is relying more on sales from Uber Eats, Grubhub, and DoorDash.

She is optimistic about her ability to weather this storm. She has already seen people’s loyalty give her sales

“(For) 32 years people have made it their business to stop in, all though the trials and tribulations the city has endured,” she says.

Retail is also hurting.

epiphany studios, which specializes in high-end hand-blown glass pieces, had to close its prime location near the Detroit Symphony when it closed indefinitely.

Owner April Wagner says she also had to cut staff at its Pontiac location and now has remaining administrative personnel working from home. She has put more emphasis on online shopping.

“The truth is of us all (small business owners) are scared,” says Wagner. “People aren’t out and about shopping, eating in restaurants, walking around. I have never seen anything like that.”

Much of epiphany’s sales come from showroom sales, which Wager says is too risky for her employees given the virus. She’s asked valued customers to check the website as well as the sites of online retailers selling her art.

There is also an offer of free shipping with the online password “ARTGLASS.”

Wager has always maintained a clean facility, but she has amped that up. Doors knobs and tools are scrubbed with alcohol regularly.

epiphany studios owner April Wagner finds solace in her art. She had to close her store in Detroit.

Many of the planned events have been put in jeopardy or cancelled.  The first quarter of the year is usually used to prototype new works, but that has also been scaled back.

One bit of solace Wager has found is through her art.  Without the pressures of day-to-day work of running the place, she has had time to work more on her creations.

”I have found a little more time to focus on my art,” she Wagner. “It helps me deal with the anxiety.”

She also trying to help others weather the virus by blogging about what local small businesses are doing and how you can help them weather this difficult time.

For example, she shared a link to a letter from Amy Peterson, CEO of Rebel Nell addressing how that company is working with its nonprofit arm, T.E.A., to help its employees and generate business.

Rebel Nell, which makes jewelry out of fallen layers of graffiti, hires women who have struggled to find and retain employment as creative designers. They are taught the art as well as financial management, life wellness and entrepreneurship.

To make sure these women receive full wages during this time, she says T.E.A. has committed to contributing all donations from March 1. It will also work with those who are mothers to find provide childcare while schools and day care facilities are closed and will use its resources to find food and provide transportation.

Many retail stores such as The Peacock Room, Green Daffodil and City Bird offer curbside pickup.

The list Wagner provided can be found here.

Both Thomas and Wagner have had to lay off employees, but plan to fully re-employ them once things stabilize.

Thomas has looked into some of the loans being offered to help small businesses but has not had time to pour through them all and find out if her business is eligible.

Small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives, and nonprofits hit by coronavirus can apply for several low interest loans.

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has approved Governor Whitmer’s request for a statewide Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) declaration, opening the opportunity to small businesses to access low-interest loans from the SBA.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer says the state is continuing to look at every resource available to support our businesses, communities and entrepreneurs around the state impacted by coronavirus.”

The EIDL designation means that Michigan small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives, and nonprofits that have suffered substantial economic losses as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak will now have the ability to apply for low-interest loans as part of $1 billion in funding made available to the SBA by Congress earlier this month.

“This designation unlocks critical financial resources for small businesses across the state impacted by the tough, but necessary steps we have taken to mitigate the spread of coronavirus here in Michigan,” says Whitmer. “While access to these loans is vital, we are continuing to look at every resource available to support our businesses, communities and entrepreneurs around the state impacted by coronavirus.”

This loan can be applied for here.

Another form of assistance is the Michigan Small Business Relief Program.  This program allows the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to provide up to $10 million in small business grants and $10 million in small business loans.

“With the outbreak of COVID-19, many small businesses are faced with significant economic impacts, including challenges with cash flow and resources to support their workforce,” says MEDC CEO Mark A. Burton. “The Michigan Small Business Relief program will provide immediate assistance to the small businesses around the state who are facing revenue loss as a result of tough, but necessary steps that have been taken to mitigate the spread of the virus.”

It is estimated that 1,100 businesses will benefit from these actions.  Funds will start to be given out April1.  You can find out if you are eligible here.

TechTown has partnered with the City of Detroit, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and Invest Detroit to create the Detroit Small Business Stabilization Fund.

TechTown has partnered with the City of Detroit, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and Invest Detroit to create the Detroit Small Business Stabilization Fund. Together they are working to provide capital grants of up to $5,000 to act as a lifeline to neighborhood businesses.  Foot traffic has become essential to many of these businesses, and this will hopefully slow the pain of its loss.

You can apply here.

They are looking for dollars and will take donations as low as $5.00. Any anyone who wants to help out can click here.

In addition, Detroit City Council members are helping.

For example, Councilman James Tate, who serves the First District in Detroit, is offering support for local businesses. The office is currently working on graphics to show all the restaurants that have takeout, curbside, or delivery options.  Once completed, they will share on social media.

Once that’s done the office will move onto a similar project for retail.

Tate’s office regularly holds meetings at the Motor City Java and Tea House in Old Redford to discuss issues important to the district. These gathering usually bring in 70-100 people.

Java House, no longer able to hold that many, has pushed Tate to prerecord information to put online.

The coffee house, like many other restaurants, is working to get a carry-out permit, and be listed as a Carry-out Zone.  A list of participating locations can be found here.

To assist restaurants out during this time, the City of Detroit created a temporary program to provide Carryout Zones for restaurants. Any restaurant that requests an on-street Carryout Zone will be given one for no fee.

I want to encourage people to help each other. says John George, founder and executive director of Detroit Blight Busters.

Frequent contributor and ally to the meetings, John George, founder and executive director of Detroit City Blight Busters, has spent 32 years working to give Detroit’s neighborhoods the same care as downtown. Over the decades, he has built strong relationships with the community, residents and businesses.

He finds this unique challenge incredibly frustrating.  The city is so used to its community action teams and neighborhood groups meeting together, this new challenge seems alien.

“Our community has a tight-knit groove, “says George. “We come together.  We come together physically.”

While he has had to strip the number of Blight Busters employees to a bare minimum, he remains hopeful and has faith in Mayor Mike Duggan to make the right decisions for the city’s people.

“Mayor Duggan has been the mayor that protects the neighborhoods,” says George.

Just like Thomas, Tate, Wager, and everyone else, George is taking uncertain steps in an unknow territory.  Still, his message is the same as it has always been, but more relevant.

“I want to encourage people to help each other.”


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