COVID-19’s Impact On Long Island’s Downtowns

Rauch Foundation Report offers targeted actions to stabilize and foster local businesses

Back in November of last year, the Rauch Foundation commissioned a survey to better measure COVID-19’s impact on Long Island’s business and downtown districts. The results from this online survey would help provide recommendations on how to insure a speedier recovery. The Garden City-based organization, whose mission statement includes investing in ideas and organizations that spark systemic change in local communities, recently shared the outcome of this study.
Written by HR&A Advisors and presented to the Long Island Regional Planning Council, the survey results were folded into a larger report that explored trends using public and proprietary data, vacancy audits, online business surveys and discussions with a wide range of stakeholders, including elected leaders, business associations and economic development and real estate experts to understand how different downtowns were performing during the pandemic. It also focused on how communities of color and low-income communities fared differently than others.

Among the key findings, the report found permanent closures in lower-income communities were significantly higher than the average across 30 downtowns that were surveyed; additionally, more than a third of all downtown businesses projected a loss of more than 50 percent of revenue in 2020 compared to prior years. The severity of the collateral damage produced by the pandemic came as no surprise to Rauch Foundation President Nancy Rauch Douzinas.
“This study shows that there has been much pain and disruption in most Long Island downtowns, especially those at the center of low income and minority communities,” Rauch Douzinas said.

The report included quantitative analysis of 10 focus downtowns (Baldwin, Bay Shore, Central Islip, Greenport, Mineola, Garden City, New Hyde Park, Northport, Port Washington, Riverhead and Roosevelt), as well as online and in-person surveying of businesses in 30 downtowns. The survey was offered in English and Spanish and was distributed online, in person and through local media. Both Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Suffolk County Executive Steve Ballone, who were apprised of the report’s findings, cited the crucial role downtown businesses play as being a major driver of the local Long Island economy.
“This report highlights just how important downtowns and small businesses were for Long Island’s economy pre-pandemic, and how we must reinvest in them to ensure a vibrant future,” Curran said. “

Bellone added, “Our historic downtowns are a prized part of Long Island’s identity. It is essential to bolster both our immediate and long term support to ensure not only their resurgence from the COVID-19 pandemic but continued growth well into the future.”

Key Survey Findings

• Although most downtown businesses were growing before the pandemic, nearly in 1 in 5 businesses were facing challenges related to unaffordable rents, competition from online commerce and staffing issues.

• Post-COVID-19, more than 1 in 3 downtown food and beverage and retail businesses projected 50 percent-plus loss of revenue in 2020 compared to 2019

• Downtowns that rebounded more quickly were generally leisure and food and beverage destinations.

• Downtowns that embraced innovative uses of streets and public spaces were able to more successfully re-attract visitors.

• Businesses in lower-income communities and businesses of color were more likely to be impacted by the pandemic, due to lack of access to capital and online marketing, difficulty accessing Federal aid and lack of information.

• Permanent and temporary store closures in lower-income communities were significantly higher than the average across the 30 downtowns surveyed in the study.

In addition to investigating immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the report also analyzed how Long Island’s downtowns will need to pivot to thrive in a post-pandemic “new normal.” Downtowns prepared to creatively reimagine storefront and open spaces, explore innovative street usage and deploy solutions for new multifamily housing will be poised to succeed. Providing immediate support for small businesses – particularly those in lower-income communities and communities of color-and new solutions for flexible office space will also be key to re-energizing suburban downtowns and allowing local businesses to embrace post-pandemic cultural and economic changes.

A broader cross-section of customer support including new residents and officer workers, new storefront uses and experiential retail that offers experiences/services not available online will be key to attracting those customers. The study also offered 11 recovery interventions that include short-, medium- and long-term goals for stabilizing downtown businesses, creating flexibility for the new normal and supporting long-term downtown growth.

The recommendations aim to accelerate recovery through new, innovative approaches as well as tried-and-true long-term investments. For Long Island Regional Planning Council Chairman John Cameron, the blueprint offered by this study is a solid baseline to work from in helping drive the recovery of an important cornerstone of the Long Island economy.
“Each of Long Island’s downtowns are critical in driving our regional economy,” Cameron said. “Combining creativity and determination with the full support and vision of our local and regional leaders will ensure that each of our downtowns will have a speedy and sustainable recovery.”

Recommended Downtown Recovery Interventions

Stabilize Downtown Businesses
1. Double down on financial support for small businesses, especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
2. Create small and downtown support divisions at the County economic development departments.
3. Help small businesses adopt new technologies.
4. Provide resources for small businesses to increase revenues and reduce costs.

Create Flexibility For The New Normal
5. Reposition vacant storefronts for flexible, creative new uses.
6. Make outdoor dining permanent and cut red tape for food and beverage establishments.
7. Create year-round open streets.

Support Long-Term Downtown Growth
8. Engage in comprehensive, inclusive development in lower-income downtowns.
9. Build transit-oriented multifamily housing in downtowns.
10. Invest in complete streets and green infrastructure.
11. Invest in sewers and high-tech septic systems.

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