PEABODY — The pandemic may seem to be waning, but businesses in downtown Peabody are still feeling the effects of COVID-19 — and say they need more support.
That’s the case for Create & Escape on Main Street, a shop that hosts crafting events and workshops. The business has been open for five years, but co-owner Wendy Lattof said 2022 has been its worst.
“Large corporations had a budget to do team building during the pandemic and colleges had the budget to do events with mail kits when everything jumped online,” Lattof said. “Now as people are heading back to work, those team building budgets are no longer there.
“We’ve definitely seen a decline in our business,” Lattof continued. “And it’s concerning.”
The numbers are a bit better for Granite Coast Brewing Company on Main Street, said co-owner Jeff Marquis. Granite Coast has good and bad months, but still manages to get by, Marquis said.
“Unfortunately, subsistence does not mean profitability or growth,” he continued. “When a customer asks us how we are doing as a business, the standard response is ‘We are still here and the lights are still on.’”
Marquis is not the only business owner who’s given that answer, he said.
“The downtown area of Peabody, as a whole, seems to be in a neutral place of floating along,” Marquis said. “No one seems to be doing gangbusters, but no one seems to be boarding up the windows.”
About 110 local businesses received grants from the city’s Community Development Authority to pay their rent and other unavoidable costs while they were shuttered. There was also a CDA loan that businesses could defer on paying for most of the pandemic, but that deferment period has now passed.
“For those of us with city-funded loans, the removal of interest would be a great offer that would lower our monthly costs, and every little bit helps,” Marquis said.
Peabody has used money from the federally-funded Community Development Block Grant Program to create a small business program, said Curt Bellavance, Peabody’s community development director.
“There’s more requirements to get that money so it’s a little bit harder. Not everybody can apply,” Bellavance said. “But we have had that in place for about a year now.”
Still, Lattof said that aid for small businesses feels like it has gone by the wayside since the spring of 2020.
“I find a lot of the government and city and people were supporting and funding us through COVID when things were first happening, but they’ve kind of forgotten about us now,” Lattof said. “I think everyone thinks that everything’s fine since we’re all out and about and everything is back to normal, and it’s not.
Peabody Main Streets works to attract people to Main Street businesses through events and exposure. Deanne Healey headed the organization before the pandemic hit in 2020, and said that COVID-19 halted a lot of the group’s momentum.
“But we did run a number of initiatives throughout the pandemic that tried to get the community to focus on supporting local businesses and those in need,” said Healey, who remains on the board of Main Streets.
This included a calendar raffle that highlighted restaurants offering takeout and donated the money to Haven from Hunger, Healey said. Main Streets also created a Facebook group called Support Peabody Business Now, where businesses can post advertisements and special offers.
Sarah Narcus, owner of the Main Street event venue Olio, started a Downtown Peabody Business Coalition as storefronts began to fully open in the spring of 2021.
The group meets monthly and consists of local business owners. They discuss ways to support each other and solutions to issues that affect their businesses.
“My goal was really just to have a chance for all of us to get together and share ideas, so that’s what we’ve been doing every month or so for the last just over a year,” Narcus said.
Main Streets held similar meetings before the pandemic. They continued a bit after businesses shut down, Narcus said, but weren’t happening once storefronts really began to open back up.
Healey said that “there definitely have not been as many meetings” hosted by Main Streets during the pandemic, but that the group is working to address this. Main Streets also recently completed a review of its bylaws and voted to include seats for business and property owners on its board.
“Once that gets in place, I think then you’ll start to see a stronger line of communication between the group that Sarah started and the Main Streets board, in terms of making sure we’re all marching in the same direction and supporting each other,” Healey said.
Narcus shares the minutes of each coalition meeting with Peabody’s City Council. She said she is hopeful that Chris Ryder, who was recently named the business liaison for Peabody and is also the mayor’s chief of staff, will be able to help Main Street.
The last liaison left the role in March 2020, leaving the city largely without someone to take on these duties until now.
“Unfortunately with the liaison position’s turnover rate and inability to execute on actions required to aid businesses, there has been little help from [the coalition] other than allowing us to network and confer with our fellow business owners,” Marquis said.
Several issues continue to come up at the coalition’s meetings, Lattof said.
“There’s been no progress,” she said. “We literally have talked about the same thing for years. Like last summer, we started talking about snow removal so we can be proactive, and then we ran into a lot of problems because no one did anything.”
The coalition has also tried to address parking and cleaning issues, but with little success, Lattof said.
Main Street is swept regularly, but street sweepers don’t always get close enough to the curb because of parked cars. This often leaves trash and other debris in the street, Narcus said.
“There were conversations about how we could have no parking overnight on one day a week, or once every other week, rotating sides of the street so that the city can sweep to the curbs, but it still hasn’t happened,” Narcus said.
The coalition has also suggested adding signs that more clearly outline where visitors can park downtown and replacing or removing broken parking meters.
The city has secured four grants totaling $675,000 to address parking and lighting issues downtown, Bellavance said. These grants will be used to install new lighting, charging stations for electric vehicles, new parking kiosks and allow the city to replace meters within city parking lots and along Main and Foster streets with kiosks.
The project is still in the design stages, but Bellavance expects the work to be done this fall.
“It’s a long process,” Bellavance said. “People have been short staffed here at City Hall, and we’re not even fully functional yet, but we’re still trying to move forward with some of these ideas.”
One idea Lattof would like to see come to fruition is events like sidewalk sales or art festivals held directly on Main Street.
“[Main Streets] has done some pop up pods that are down in Peabody Square in the courthouse, but that’s not helping the businesses on Main Street,” Lattof said. “You can’t get people on Main Street if you’re having events off Main Street.”
Main Streets hosts a summer concert series at the Leather City Commons each year. Granite Coast is the exclusive beer vendor at the shows, and while this helps bring in revenue, Marquis hopes more people visit his restaurant and other local storefronts.
“Before COVID, nightlife was being established and events were happening,” Marquis said. “These things are still happening — all we need is for people to realize that Peabody still has some awesome things to do.”
Contact Caroline Enos at CEnos@northofboston.com and follow her on Twitter @CarolineEnos.