Pandemic obstacles keep piling up for Brian Plavnick, owner of G-Force Adventure Center in Brewer, but like many of the laser tag game players at his amusement business, he’s managed to dodge enough blows to keep going.
When the pandemic hit Maine in March, he had to close his 21,000-square-foot amusement center in Brewer under Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order to shut nonessential businesses. The other lucrative part of his business, mobile corporate events, fairs and graduations, also quickly dried up, with 100 bookings shrinking to one.
It’s a story of lost revenue and rapidly changing pandemic mandates that is repeated across the state by many entertainment, hospitality and tourism businesses. Even with federal stimulus and other grants earlier in the pandemic, some decided the changing state mandates were too onerous and stayed closed this year, while others decided to stay open and figure out ways to fill the gaps.
The ongoing changes continue to be a challenge for those who stayed open like Plavnick. One example is the governor’s recent pullback of indoor gathering numbers from 100 to 50 following the rise in coronavirus cases. Plavnick, who lives in Caribou, started his business 15 years ago, and it has grown and been profitable.
“It was very painful,” he said of the business retraction since March. “But the bills don’t stop coming in.”
Plavnick said he made a lot of phone calls in March and managed to get deferred payments on a couple loans and deferred rent from his landlord. He also received a forgivable federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and a $9,000 federal grant. He has savings that he can live on for now. But he still is pressed to pay high insurance bills, including for risk liability and for the more than $1 million in equipment he has.
From left (clockwise): Brian Plavnick, owner of G-Force Adventure Center in Brewer, stands near some of the center’s arcade games; Plavnick has added sanitizing stations to meet state pandemic guidelines; James Nile, who works at G-Force Adventure Center in Brewer, sanitizes arcade games. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN
His situation is similar to that of many other small businesses in Maine and nationwide. The National Federation of Independent Business, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group representing small businesses, said in a recent report that half of the small businesses it polled need more financial help in the next 12 months.
Three-quarters of them would apply for or consider applying for a second Paycheck Protection Program loan. Some 28,000 small businesses in Maine received nearly $2.3 billion of the forgivable loans to help stay afloat and pay employees under stimulus bills passed earlier this year.
“It was difficult to manage how to go forward,” said Steve Sudduth, who owns Wyonegonic Camps in Denmark, which draws children from out-of-state and from 11 countries.
With travel difficult and the timing of the guidance for campgrounds coming too close to the camp’s usual opening, he decided to reopen next year. Though they are in different situations, both said they will apply for a second loan if Washington lawmakers agree on a new stimulus plan.
Sudduth said the loan helped him keep year-round staff to work on administrative and repair projects around the campground and prepare for next season. He also has an economic recovery grant from the state that is part of the federal CARES Act stimulus.
Plavnick said deferrals have helped him, and his landlord has been particularly patient in waiting for payments. But recently, the landlord told him he’s thinking of getting a new tenant. The timing couldn’t be worse. He’s talking to the landlord about possibly buying the building.
“We’re starting to do really well,” Plavnick said.
He is no stranger to hardship. Plavnick said he had worked hard to first build a manufacturing company but lost it when he was training to be a pilot and had an accident. He said he and his wife became homeless and worked on a ranch, fixing fences and shoveling manure to survive.
When the internet blossomed, he started a software company that grew into a multi-million-dollar business, but it failed when a trend toward outsourcing escalated in the early 2000s. He started G-Force around 2005.
“We’re going to continue on until they turn the lights off on us,” he said. “I’m fighting for the survival of this business because it’s something I believe in. I like doing things for people.”
The new restrictions on indoor occupancy will cut in half the number of customers he can have to two separate areas with 50 people each. Pre-pandemic, he could accommodate 300 people in total. Pandemic restrictions already had decreased the number of customers playing a particular game. For example, laser tag is normally open to any player in the building, but since the pandemic only small groups like families or friends can play.
To boost business, he’s adding “fork-and-knife” food like ribeye steak to the finger-food menu in the restaurant and a sound booth where people can sing karaoke.
He’s also gearing up to add a new event to the laser tag, archery, ax throwing, low-impact paintball and arcade games already offered: pro wrestling, which will start on Nov. 14 and is already sold out.
Customers can pay to sit by the wrestling ring or they can watch from the restaurant area on a 300-inch television as he tries to shift to appeal more to those 18 and over, who spend more time and money there than younger kids and teens.
“We’re reinventing ourselves,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest challenge the pandemic has brought Plavnick is personal. His wife doesn’t want him to come home much because he is in contact with so many people. He makes the three-hour drive to their home in Caribou each week, staying in his camper and not sleeping in the house.
“I haven’t hugged or kissed my wife since COVID. It’s very difficult for both of us,” he said. “Sometimes we’re in tears, but we believe in what we’re doing so we will continue on.”