Advocating for Main Street

Rhode Island’s chambers of commerce, merchant associations, and tourism boards have emerged as small business heroes during COVID-19

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Even if you never watched a minute of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, you’re probably familiar with the quote from its creator Fred Rogers: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” If you’re seeking silver linings, glimmers of good, and adult helpers – and you’re a small business owner – chances are good that you’ve found them at your local chamber of commerce, tourism board, and merchant and neighborhood associations.

Rhode Island has 15 chambers of commerce and numerous merchant associations and tourism offices, all known for promoting local business with networking opportunities like Business After Hours events to enhance economic growth. While always important to their members, the lockdown in March saw many of these organizations go from working quietly under the radar to becoming crucial hubs in their cities and towns. Many of these agencies continue to provide regular e-blasts of user-friendly updates on ever-changing phases, guidelines, and Executive Orders; post information to their websites about which businesses are open and in what capacity; host virtual seminars on obtaining grants; and even work to secure and distribute personal protective equipment (PPE). But that’s not all.

“The role of Chamber Director was revived as a result of the pandemic,” says Peg Fradette, Executive Director of the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce. “For those of us who dove in, we became students of the pandemic, learning the regulations of the State and Federal programs. We found our rightful place in the community. This experience put to bed the notion of regional chambers or those who think smaller chambers can be collapsed and/or taken over. In this case, that would have been a disaster.”

Fradette explains that the entire COVID-19 situation has forced her chamber to morph existing programs and create brand-new ones to help their membership and others in the community stay connected. The Chamber launched the “Love Where You Live” campaign to bring greater emphasis to the businesses in Narragansett and encourage people to shop and travel locally. Another initiative was starting their own version of the Front Porch Project, where professional photographer Josh Edenbaum donated time to document local merchants standing outside of their businesses, connecting names to faces and boosting awareness around town.

“All of Narragansett’s normal activities had been cancelled and I thought that the Governor’s Take it Outside initiative could be put to good use by bringing what is normally held inside – outside. Using experience with these types of outside events in Europe, Nantucket, and NYC, I proposed safe ways to help small businesses and revive cancelled activities, especially for the children of our town who have had it so hard this year,” says Fradette. “The grant was awarded and we got to work.” Today, among other things, she is putting the finishing touches on the Narragansett Holiday Street Faire, which will work in tandem with the Town’s Annual Tree Lighting and Festival of Lights, held December 5-6 in the Pier on both Veteran’s Park and Gazebo Park, adjacent to the Towers. “Our goal is to spread people out – and spread joy – in a Dickens-like holiday setting.”

Across the state at Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, James Toomey, Director of Marketing, explains that while his role is essentially the same, what has changed is how his agency has connected with attractions and dining establishments. Says Toomey, “We’ve needed to be proactive, unhesitating, and creative to respond to the challenges 2020 has presented all of us.” He cites the adaptation of a long-running food tour program as a prime example, which transitioned from an in-person dining experience with the chef of a local restaurant to “Culinaria Live”, a live-stream that brings viewers into the kitchen to learn how to make a particular dish. “This reimagined program enabled us to still spotlight the restaurants that are so important to our region and gave viewers cooking tips and an opportunity to ask questions and interact with the chefs… something that is not possible with a traditional pre-recorded cooking show on television or via YouTube.”

Toomey notes that while many holiday-related shows will still go on at Woonsocket’s Stadium Theatre, Blackstone Valley Tourism’s own produced and popular Polar Express Train Ride had to be stopped in its tracks. “Instead, we created a new holiday event called Search For Santa, an outdoor, socially distanced boat ride on the Blackstone Valley Explorer, where passengers will find some favorite Christmas characters along the Blackstone River heading to the North Pole,” Toomey describes enthusiastically. “By doing this it’s allowed us to keep the tradition alive while delivering an engaging alternative that’s safe for families.”

How are initiatives like #BYOBlanket, which encourages diners to bundle up and dine outdoors, and Take It Outside, a statewide initiative totaling millions in awards to help businesses do just that, really going in the part of the state known for “No school, Foster-Glocester!”? Says Toomey, “It does appear that these ideas have been helping local restaurants and businesses to stay open and continue to engage with their customers.” He notes that some have gone further than others, such as Kountry Kitchen in Smithfield, which expanded their entire business model from primarily a breakfast restaurant, serving omelets and pancakes, to a new endeavor as Kountry Clam Shack, allowing for outdoor dining later into the evening. Woonsocket’s Kay’s Restaurant is now known for both their famous sandwiches and series of igloos. “Customers are responding quite positively to these changes and seem to understand how hard many businesses are working to keep people safe, comfortable… and well fed,” says Toomey.

No matter where you live in Rhode Island, when you think of Federal Hill, you think of great food, and Rick Simone, Executive Director of the Federal Hill Commerce Association, wants to keep it that way. The Providence neighborhood is recognized as one of the top foodie destinations in the country with many award-winning eateries. While known as “Little Italy” and rightly so, culinary options include Chinese, Mediterranean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Lebanese, Caribbean, and Cuban food. In June, Simone and his team launched Al Fresco on the Hill, where 14 blocks were closed to traffic to accommodate on-street dining within two sections of Atwells Avenue. Reservations were required and guests had to follow state guidelines for masks and social distancing.

“We covered a footprint that had never been done before. We began by working with the City of Providence to create an affordable structure and partnership so that restaurants could afford to be a part of it,” says Simone. “To date, 30 restaurants have participated on Friday and Saturday evenings, creating individualized safe and enjoyable environments with guest dining right on the Avenue.” A supporter of Take It Outside, he says it was the only reason the restaurants could extend the season. “From heaters to equipment, sanitizer, and yes, blankets, we were able to make October and November happen.”

So, what’s next? Each Saturday in December Federal Hill will host various holiday activities including tree lightings, caroling, storytelling, ice carving, and food excursions. Each event will be COVID-friendly and live-streamed for those participating from home.

“While I have always considered myself the eternal optimist, this pandemic has certainly tested the limits on how to stay that way. My role has been changed and redefined by COVID-19,” says Simone. “I no longer just provide resources or refer people in a direction to solve an issue. Now we develop the resources, solve issues together, and offer each other various ways to stay optimistic as to what the future holds.”

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