Many people agree that Sebastopol is “unique” in the many ways they choose to define the open-minded community with traditional small town traditions and evolving progressive tendencies. What a recent Business Survey Report found out is the city is not so unique when comparing current economic challenges and the impacts of external forces like online shopping and non-local large corporation competition. The threats to small town retail and local economic vitality are being repeated across the country — and existed before the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“Sebastopol already had lots of (downtown) vacancies before the pandemic,” said Johnny Nolen, a member of a consulting team that conducted the survey for the city. “The impacts of the pandemic we found are stunning.”
Since the closing of most of the county and state economy on March 18, more than half of surveyed Sebastopol businesses said they had lost 50% of their normal revenues, with one-fourth of the businesses having lost all of their business activities and revenues.
“I heard lots of emotional stories I was not prepared for,” said Nolen.
With the cases of COVID-19 on the rise in the county, and parts of the economy still closed, Nolen said the full impacts from the pandemic are still mounting.
Nolen’s group, CoMission, also led by former Sebastopol mayor Craig Litwin and west county resident Herman G, Hernandez, are already leaping into action.
“We know better where people stand and what they are looking for to get re-opened and remain safe,” said Litwin. “Consumer safety and a unifying message are our primary focus.”
The survey was taken by 160 Sebastopol businesses, representing a broad cross section of firms and stores, based mainly in the downtown, Barlow and north and south retail sectors. One-third (35%) of the businesses reported they laid-off or furloughed their entire workforce, with a total of 70% suffering partial or full staff layoffs.
Of the 160 Sebastopol businesses, a total of 103 received some form of federal relief, 58 being Payroll Protection loans from the SBA.
In follow up conversations and ongoing contacts, Nolen said at least half of the businesses he has contacted say they are suffering “immediate threats” of financial closure. The most common requests for help was in the form of “rent assistance,” followed by “centralized information,” “re-opening instructions,” “tax or fee reductions,” and requests for free advertising.
The survey results have not been formally shared with city staff or city council members as recent local government attention has turned to street rallies against racism and meetings about the city’s policing practices and policies.
“We hope to have a study session as soon as everyone’s ready,” said Litwin.
Possible talking points might include a city-based commercial rent relief program, small business support with mentoring on financial management and safe practices to re-open businesses and gain consumer confidence.
“Our first goal (working with businesses) is to achieve a level of stability for everyone and stop the economic damage,” said Nolen. “Businesses need help following the re-opening guidelines. They have to learn to operate more cautiously to get back to sustainability and they need to increase consumer confidence.”
As new categories of businesses are being allowed to re-open to the public, it is still unknown how many customers will feel safe enough to shop and be in public, one of the CoMission partners said.
“Our working message is, ‘Be safe,’” said Litwin.
Working with a local volunteer Sebastopol vitality group made up of the chamber of commerce, farmers market, Sonoma West Times & News and others, a monthlong marketing campaign is being launched this week. The “Sip, Shop, Savor” Safe Sebastopol program is being designed for all participating local businesses to “co-promote” one another and stress a message of “safety.”
It is part of a bigger campaign being branded as “Inter-dependence Month” for July.
CoMission will be hosting a website and shoppers and businesses will be encourage to share social media messages and shared activities. The campaign will offer local shoppers weekly prizes for shopping, buying Sebastopol Farmers Market gift certificates or completing other random community activities.
“We know a lot of the local economy is jobs,” said Litwin, “but our community is also about everybody opening up and walking outdoors, using the library’s book drop, starting a garden, volunteering and other activities.”