COVID-19 is making your local Main Street businesses very sick right now. Only you can save them.

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A sign in a window of Shadyside Variety Store seen on March 18. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

A sign in a window of Shadyside Variety Store seen on March 18. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Your Main Street is the living room of your community. The small businesses there employ your neighbors and may be among the reasons you chose to live there.

Now imagine a post-COVID-19 world in which many of those businesses are closed indefinitely because some only had enough money on hand to hold them over for one month without revenue. Now also imagine those neighbors laid off without income, indefinitely, and nobody hiring.

This is probably happening right now, on your local Main Street. You can likely guess which businesses are most vulnerable, but if you are unsure, keep an eye on community news sources, businesses’ social media pages and local development organizations and business improvement districts.

Better yet, call or email your Main Street businesses and ask how they are doing. If the answer is somewhere between “not well” and “really badly,” buy a gift card. Buy lots of gift cards. If they don’t have any, encourage them to make some and offer them for sale.

Their health, after all, is your community’s health.

The Warrington Avenue business district in December 2019. (Aaron Sukenik/The Hilltop Alliance)

The Warrington Avenue business district in December 2019. (Aaron Sukenik/The Hilltop Alliance)

In Allentown's East Warrington Avenue business district, where I work as executive director of the Hilltop Alliance, almost 40 new businesses have opened since 2014, generating more than $9 million in commercial property renovations and lowering the vacancy rate from more than 40% then to 15% today.

That turnaround has seemed “overnight” to some, but I cannot understate all the work that has been put into what you see today. To me and many others in and around our organization, these businesses are our friends, our partners, our lunch rooms, our meeting rooms and, especially, our pride. To even think about small business owners and employees hurting, or closing, is not just business — it’s personal.

We have all heard the news about billions of dollars available in loans from the Small Business Administration [SBA]. For businesses that are eligible and can quickly apply, that’s great. Unfortunately, those SBA loans traditionally require collateral and can take a month to process and approve. That’s simply too little, too late for many small businesses.

So the federal government cavalry is not coming to save Main Street. You, the regular customers, are the fastest-acting cavalry available right now.

During World War II, the federal government led a campaign with iconic posters urging Americans to “Buy War Bonds.” We need a similar, national campaign right now to “Buy Small Business Gift Cards.” Pittsburgh’s neighborhood development leaders are working on this now with our partners in city government and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Today, to make it through this period, many Allentown-area businesses are actively promoting their gift cards. Those include Alla Famiglia (opened 2009), Onion Maiden (2017), Black Forge Coffee House (2015), Breakfast at Shelly’s (2016), Dark Root Barbershop (2018), Salon Ivy (2017), Hilltop Pharmacy (2016), Goodbye LuLu (2019), Dr. Tumblety’s Apothecary (2019) and La Marie Brow Club (2019). Some are currently open, some closed, some doing take-out food, but none are seeing the same revenue as they were a month ago.

By investing today in small business gift cards, you are investing in your Main Street’s ability to hold on during this challenging time. In doing so, you can do your part to preserve your small business community. You won’t regret it once this public health crisis is over.

Aaron Sukenik is the executive director of the Hilltop Alliance. The Hilltop Alliance runs the Business District Program in south Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood. The program connects entrepreneurs with available storefronts, offers grants, loans and other resources to property owners and businesses, promotes and markets the district, and oversees street cleaning and public space improvements. To contact Aaron, email aaron@pghhilltopalliance.org.

PublicSource has a special page dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 for the Pittsburgh region. See it here and sign up for our newsletter to stay informed. We hope you are following the news and, if your situation allows, social distancing guidelines.  Have a tip or an idea? Please email mila@publicsource.org.

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