As the number of COVID-19 vaccinations continues to grow, more businesses in Rome are feeling like in-store activity is getting closer to pre-pandemic levels.

In fact, during a recent survey of downtown businesses, 52% of those who responded said that things are basically back to normal. Another 39% said that business is slowly getting back to normal.

Rome Downtown Development Director Aundi Lesley and the DDA Business Development Committee, led by banker Bryan Shealy, are trying to determine the best way they can help local merchants get over the hump as the pandemic eases.

Most of the businesses that responded to the DDA survey said the greatest help they could get is with marketing and advertising.

Five percent indicated that they are in danger of not making it another six months as a result of losses suffered during the pandemic. Lesley said the DDA wants to do whatever it can to help those businesses survive.

“Some of them need help learning how to utilize some of the tools available; some of them just want to hire somebody to do it for them because they don’t have the time,” Lesley said. “We will be offering workshops to teach some of these things and partner with the (Rome Floyd) Chamber and Small Business Development Center with some of those.”

To that end, the DDA is considering the implementation of a $500 marketing assistance grant.

“We’re still working out a lot of those details,” Lesley said. “A couple of board members are helping come up with an application and (details) of what the program will look like.”

The grants will come from $5,000 that was allocated within the downtown Business Improvement District budget for business development. BID activities are funded through a surcharge on business licenses and a designated amount of property taxes in the district.

“We’ve talked a lot about how we can fill in the gaps and make sure we are advertising and driving people downtown,” Lesley said. “It kind of happened naturally in the past, and then COVID — so people just aren’t getting out as much as they were.”

Throughout the pandemic, the Chamber witnessed small businesses go through a series of peaks and valleys.

“Some flourished, some struggled, some recovered, some didn’t,” said Pam Powers-Smith, director of business and industry services at the chamber. “But we also saw entrepreneurs taking their leaps of faith and starting up new businesses.”

Lesley and the Business Development Committee have also been looking at “gap analysis” data from Missy Kendrick at the Rome-Floyd County Development Authority and SBDC.

It identifies needs in the downtown district and is used to recruit the right businesses to fill vacant properties.

Lesley has headed the DDA for nearly a year. She said downtown district vacancies in that period have ranged from 15-18 properties.

DDA Marketing Director Megan Treglown Otwell noted that a number of locations have been vacant longer than others, citing the Fricks Furniture building in the 400 block and the side-by-side spaces in the Cotton Block that had been targeted for an upscale pizza restaurant that never opened.

One factor complicating the filling of some retail space is that building owners who have renovated their upper levels for residential use have to be a little more selective in what goes into the street level spots.

A couple that fall into that category are the property at 412 Broad St. and the former Esserman’s/Peach Palace building at 425 Broad St.

“We’re putting together a plan now,” Lesley said.

She expects to work closely with real estate partners to help identify trends across the retail spectrum.

“We can tell them these are the kind of businesses that we need downtown and feel really strongly that our community can sustain,” Lesley said.

Powers-Smith said the chamber has decided to create a more formalized plan to be proactive on behalf of small businesses.

“It is in everyone’s best interest that each business owner find their best fit – right area of town, building that suits them, resources readily available etc.,” Powers-Smith said. “What we don’t want is to lose a potential business that Rome needs and wants.”

One of the largest gaps in Rome, based on a 2017 study, is the home furnishings and decor sector. At one time, the downtown district was flush with furniture stores but that’s not the case now.

Electronics, appliance and lawn and garden stores are also on the list of “needs.” And men’s stores come up frequently during anecdotal feedback Lesley has received.

Lesley said Powers-Smith, who sits on the DDA Business Development Committee, is working to get an updated study.

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