Downtown businesses and Bangor residents generally liked measures the city took to mitigate the economic damage of pandemic restrictions — and they’d like to see some of those things become permanent.
Sixty-six percent of downtown Bangor businesses used at least one of those measures, which included 15-minute parking spots, “parklets” that allowed businesses to offer expanded outdoor seating and shopping, the closure of a section of Broad Street to vehicle traffic for part of the year, grants for both businesses and nonprofits, and maps and listings on the city of Bangor website.
Downtown Bangor Partnership coordinator Betsy Lundy said most of those measures were taken within days of Maine’s first pandemic lockdowns in March.
“We really sprang into action as quickly as we could,” Lundy said. “We tried to anticipate what sorts of challenges they might face, and how we might quickly respond to them.”
The overall response to those measures was positive, with many business owners saying they wanted them to come back next year, either seasonally or permanently.
Seventy-eight percent of businesses surveyed said they wanted the 15-minute spots to become either permanent or seasonal fixtures of downtown, while 22 percent did not want them to come back. Some 28 percent wanted the parklets to become permanent, 59 percent wanted them to come back seasonally, and 12 percent did not want them to come back.
The Broad Street closure saw the least agreement among business owners, with 43 percent saying they did not want the closure to return. Thirty-six percent were in favor of permanent closure, and 21 percent were in favor of seasonal closure.
Among the community members who responded, the survey found that 59 percent approved of the 15-minute parking spots, 64 percent approved of the parklets and 50 percent approved of the closure of Broad Street.
While there have been an array of opportunities for financial aid during the pandemic, the survey showed that about 25 percent of downtown Bangor businesses received no local, state or federal aid during the pandemic. The other 75 percent received either Payroll Projection Plan funding, federal Economic Industry Disaster loans, Maine Economic Recovery grants, local grants or some other form of aid. Numbers for Maine’s Tourism, Hospitality and Retail Recovery Grant Program, applications for which started in early December, were not available in time for the survey.
Lundy said that the effects of restrictions were mitigated for many businesses by several other factors. Many businesses, especially those in the retail and restaurant sectors, were quick to adopt measures such as offering takeout, curbside and delivery service, and starting e-commerce websites if they did not already have one. For restaurants specifically, Maine’s warm summer without much rain helped boost outdoor dining.
“The fact that people were able to offer outdoor dining, I think, helped a lot of them be able to make it through to next year. We were really lucky to have such great weather,” Lundy said. “And community support played a huge part for every business. The community really stepped up to support local businesses, and that’s huge.”
Times remain tough for many businesses as winter settles in. According to the survey, 34 percent of downtown businesses are operating at 50 percent or less of typical revenue, with 12 percent operating at less than 25 percent. For restaurants, retailers and arts and entertainment businesses specifically, the number of businesses operating at 50 percent or less of typical revenue jumps to 42 percent.
Nevertheless, downtown Bangor has weathered the storm fairly well overall, Lundy said. The Downtown Bangor Partnership is part of the International Downtown Association, a group of organizations from all over the world that promote downtowns. Over nearly a year’s worth of reports, surveys, panels and networking, Lundy said that she’s found that many downtowns across the country have more than half of their businesses operating at less than 50 percent of their normal revenue. Bangor’s numbers by that metric compare favorably.
“We are certainly not out of the woods, but it is really encouraging to see that we haven’t had widespread closures, and that overall, we’re doing OK,” she said.
She and her colleagues on the Downtown Bangor Partnership are already looking ahead to 2021, and the day when businesses can begin operating again with fewer restrictions and more normalcy.
“We are planning for a big reopening marketing campaign, for whenever it happens next year,” she said. “We don’t know when, of course, but when we’re able to return to regular operations, we’re going to push that in a big way.”