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Editor's note: This guest column is part of the Idaho Press' "Keep it Local" publication, a special edition about local businesses which publishes Sunday, March 28.

At 29 years old, Nick Muscari took the enormous leap of faith to fulfill his life’s dream: opening Nick’s Sports Grill and Lounge in his college hometown of Lubbock, Texas.

In March of 2020, at the ripe old age of 39, Nick was at work when the governor ordered all businesses, including his, to shut down. After laying off his crew, a month later he brought them back with help from the Payroll Protection Program, but that was only an eight-week fix while Nick was still losing money only being able to provide take-out services.

Then the rules started changing every two or three weeks, and before long Nick had been through several total shutdowns, a number of partial shutdowns, a couple of reopenings, crew layoffs and re-hirings, only to lay his staff off again a few weeks later. After eight months, the final curtain came down when Nick realized he couldn’t keep going, and he locked the doors for good.

“This is pretty much my whole adult life. It’s been devastating,” Nick said. “Right now I’m just on unemployment and facing lawsuits since I was forced to break my lease. I’m not sure how to pay off all the debt I incurred or how to handle or cover the lawsuits coming my way.”

This is the new reality for millions of small businesses that make up nearly 96% of all businesses across America.

In September, Yelp produced a study that showed that an average of 800 small businesses were closing every day due to the pandemic. For seven months straight, 500 small businesses a day have closed permanently. And that was six months ago. The situation has, unfortunately, grown more dire since then.

The hardest hit industries include tourism and small downtown, Etsy-style shops and eateries. The top activity of visitors around the world is shopping, dining and entertainment in a pedestrian-friendly setting. In fact, this is where 80% of non-lodging visitor spending takes place. When you take away tourism, many businesses can’t make it and are forced to shut down, and you end up with the 2020 Retail & Tourism Apocalypse.

From what the experts are saying, we may be in this until at least the summer of 2021.

But in spite of the all too many stories like Nick’s, we are finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. There are better days coming. And with that, here are three things we can look forward to:

1. SHOP LOCAL

All of those “shop local” signs you’ve seen for years never really meant much to local residents. The signs, pole banners, and marketing campaigns didn’t do enough to convince people WHY they should shop local when it’s so much easier to simply log on to Amazon. But when stories of small business closures and local owners being only one step away from homelessness, residents saw the reality and started to embrace local. Now there’s a darn good reason for shopping local: to save Aunt Betty’s Diner down the street or Nick’s Sports Grill. We feel terrible for these poor business owners, and it’s become almost a national obsession to help save these folks and their livelihoods.

This trend is likely to continue as we emerge from the pandemic and local residents realize what these small businesses mean to their community, their downtown, to area residents, and visitors.

2. HERE WE COME!

There is an enormous pent-up demand to travel. For most Americans, travel is not a luxury, it’s a necessity — especially in times like this. First up on the list will be visiting friends and family. We missed seeing our loved ones over Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries and graduations. That’s going to bring visitors back into your community. And, hopefully, your local residents will take them downtown to fill tables in your eateries and spend time in your local shops.

3. RURAL AMERICA RULES!

A major shift is happening across the country, which has been percolating for a few years: We’re seeing millennials and Gen Xers, with their families, moving from the metropolitan areas to the suburbs and into small towns across America. Many more people today can work from anywhere, as long as they have a good internet connection.

Millions of people are becoming “digital nomads,” where they can live in areas with world-class recreation (hello Nampa!), working from RVs, Airbnbs, tiny homes, and starter homes. They can live frugally and set up shop in rural towns everywhere. 

So, open your doors to small businesses as they begin to start anew. Embrace them. Support them. Encourage your friends and family to visit small businesses and shop local. And when friends and family visit you, take them downtown. After all, downtowns are back, and they’re more important than ever.

As Nick recently noted, “I would definitely like to be a small-business owner again. I really have never done anything else except work in small-business restaurants — it’s really all I know. And I know I didn’t close down because of something I did. I can’t wait to get back on my feet again.”

We are a social species. We thrive together. The creation of gathering spaces, like Indian Creek Plaza in Caldwell, are an absolute must for happy, thriving, sustainable and successful communities. These public spaces become our Community Living Room that, soon, will be home to all of us locally. There is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

Roger Brooks is the CEO of the Destination Development Association and consulted in the creation of Caldwell's Indian Creek Plaza. 

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