“I am floored,” said Sweet Shoppe owner Jennifer Rolley. “It’s embarrassing. We have lines out the door every weekend!”
Lines out the door and tables of patrons into the street are very visible signs that businesses are open and thriving in Flagstaff’s historic district. Shop owners say it has been that way since they re-opened in late May following closures because of the pandemic.
“I think, for our little shop, people are sick of being in quarantine or inside home-schooling. We’re affordable, fast and feel good. People want the warm and huggy feeling they get from biting into a caramel apple, homemade fudge or a creamy chocolate,” said Rolley, who allows 12 customers inside the candy store at a time to allow for social distancing.
Next door at Shoes and Such, boutique owner Liz Bianco is reporting the same trend. “It has been really busy since we opened. We closed for about six weeks and when we opened, we immediately had support from local customers. They would tell us, ‘We’re so glad you’re open! We’re going to shop local and support you guys!’ And, we have been unbelievably grateful. There are people who don’t need anything but they come in and buy things just to support us.”
In addition to local support, Bianco has noticed the popularity of the road trip, as visitors drive in from Phoenix and neighboring states. “I ask everybody where they are from and the overwhelming response is that people, no matter where they’re from, are trying to shop at small stores and support local economies wherever they are. People tell me they are really sad that a lot of businesses are closing.”
To accommodate shoppers who are not comfortable being inside with others, Bianco offers time for them to shop alone, before or after regular hours.
Across the street, Babbitt’s Backcountry Outfitters is also busier than ever. It has been that way through the summer and now into fall. “People really want to be outdoors. Our number one selling item when we re-opened was hammocks!” said owner Keith Harris. “My business is thriving, and it feels like the whole downtown is, as well.”
“I bought a map of the U.S. and the world because I wanted to mark where people were coming from,” said Harris. “Internationally, there was not a single mark, but across the U.S., I was just stunned to see how many people were here from all over the country. I
think it’s because kids are being homeschooled and parents are working from home, so why not take this rare opportunity to see the Grand Canyon?”
He also attributes much of the downtown’s vitality through COVID-19 to the partnership between the City of Flagstaff and the Downtown Business Alliance to close one lane of Aspen Ave., between Leroux and San Francisco streets.
“Through a right-of-way closure permit that the city issued to itself, we were able to close the southern-most lane of Aspen Ave., as well as the alley that runs north-south off Aspen,” said Flagstaff Parks and Recreation Director Rebecca Sayers. “The Aspen lane closure provided for a safe place for businesses to extend into the outdoors, under a sub-permit of the right-of-way closure, to provide dining service, open seating and additional walking space to enhance physical distancing opportunities.”
“Having the outside space has been super cool,” said Bianco. “People are hanging out there and liking that sense of community.”
Sayers says the lane closure will remain in place for as long as the weather allows this fall and winter. The city’s plan is to remove the lane closure if an accumulation of snow is forecast, to allow for safe snow operations in the area.
Other ways the city is working to assist businesses expand outside is by offering an expedited review of requests and waiving fees associated with sidewalk café and temporary use permits.
“Businesses have provided positive feedback on these efforts, and the city looks forward to continuing to work with the Downtown Business Alliance and other partners across the community to provide safe places for everyone to stay, play, distance and mask responsibly,” said Sayers.
“The seating on the street is often full and I’m so happy the city moved so quickly to make people feel more comfortable,” said Rolley. “Our guests have been so patient with the new policy of a limited number inside. I’m also hearing stories from customers about their history with our shop that I’ve never heard before. It feels like this seriously unprecedented time has brought out the humanity in people.” FBN
By Bonnie Stevens, FBN