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'Put your money where your heart is' and shop small, say Portland business owners

The CEO of the Portland Business Alliance calls downtown the "crown jewel" of the retail experience in need of extra attention during the COVID crisis

PORTLAND, Ore. — 2020 has been a year unlike any other for Portland businesses.

They've been hit by multiple crises from wildfires that devastated many Oregonians and the state’s economy in September, to vandalism and looting downtown during destructive protests, to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn.

Andrew Hoan, the CEO of the Portland Business Alliance, and Kristin Van Buskirk, owner of the small business Woonwinkel, said the result has been devastating.

"If you put any one of those things out there, it would be the headline of any year," Hoan said. "But they all happened in 2020. And so businesses are deeply impacted. They are struggling and need our support.

Hoan and Van Buskirk were guests this week on "Straight Talk."

Van Buskirk’s gift and home goods shop is located on Southwest 10th Avenue between Harvey Milk and Washington streets. It’s had windows broken by vandals and suffered financial loss during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s been tough for sure,” said Van Buskirk. “We can all put it in perspective. We all know people who are in tougher situations. But really, it’s been financially, emotionally, logistically challenging for the small businesses downtown."

The crown jewel of Oregon’s retail business

Andrew Hoan called on policy makers to give special attention to small businesses struggling through multiple layers of crises.

“What we need is our elected officials to bring an even more attentive eye to this dark moment in our economic history," he said. "And it’s getting darker because we know the worsening outbreak of COVID-19 will hamper even more our ability to connect.”

Hoan said the business community respects the public health system’s approach to trying to control the spread of the virus, but asked city, county, and state leaders to also focus attention on the resiliency of the center city of Portland.

“This is the heartbeat of our state’s economy. This is the crown jewel of the retail experience. And if it’s not well then all of Oregon is not well,” he said.

RELATED: Downtown Portland businesses band together asking for city's help

Fund to fix broken windows

Van Buskirk said she’s especially interested in a fund designated specifically to getting plywood boards down and fixing store windows.

“I don’t think business owners are going to feel safe taking their boards down until we know we can get some financial help every time an opportunist decides to break a window," Van Buskirk said.

She said it sounds like a simple thing, but it’s one that could make a big difference to businesses and the appearance of downtown.

Attracting shoppers to come back downtown

In spite of the challenges, Portland businesses are determined to bounce back and have launched several initiatives to encourage shoppers to come back downtown for the holidays.

Van Buskirk said she is especially excited about a promotion called “Shop from the outside.” Shoppers can window shop at multiple businesses downtown and purchase items they see using a Q-R code on their phone.

RELATED: Portland group comes up with new take on 'window shopping' for quick, no-contact sales

“It will open that collection you see in the windows on our website, you put the items in your cart, go off and have a little cup of coffee and come back a few minutes later and pickup your items,” she said.

Many of the shops on Southwest 10th and Washington are participating in the “Shop from the outside” campaign, as are many business owners who have had to close their main storefronts because of the economic crisis. They’ve been invited to include their goods in the downtown store windows.

“It’s a win, win, win situation for those business owners, as well as customers who can’t for one reason or another shop inside," Van Buskirk said. "And also for downtown, just making it look alive again."

Credit: Portland Business Alliance

New ways to shop small

Andrew Hoan said Portland small businesses are pulling out all the stops to bring shoppers back.

Customers can find out which businesses are open by visiting ShopSmallPdX.com.

The campaign features an inclusive focus on businesses owned by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

Another promotion, Winterland PDX, brings artwork to Portland’s downtown, Central Eastside, and Old Town neighborhoods.

Local artist Mike Bennett teamed up with young artists of color to make life-sized winter-themed art pieces from plywood previously used to cover store windows.

The artwork will be placed in business windows with a new work revealed everyday. Portlanders can find clues to the subject of the art and its location on Instagram at @winterlandpdx.

On Jan. 4, the pieces will be auctioned online and the funds raised will benefit youth of color organizations.

Free parking

In a partnership between the Portland Business Alliance, the Portland Bureau of Transportation, and Downtown Portland Clean & Safe, shoppers can park for free in the city SmartParks on Saturdays through Dec. 26.

Parking app Parking Kitty is also offering incentive to shoppers: If Portlanders spend $25 or more at a participating business, they can receive a voucher for up to two hours of free on-street parking.

Hoan also invited people to come back downtown to see the Christmas tree lit up for the holidays in Portland’s living room, Pioneer Courthouse Square.

Downtown coming back alive

Hoan recently took a walking tour with Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann.

He thanked the commissioner, who is a small business owner herself, and represents the county’s east side, for her interest in the city’s small businesses.

Hoan said the tour revealed the results of the troubling months the city has endured with boarded-up storefronts and empty sidewalks.

But he said they also saw a transition happening with the innovative approach small businesses are taking to rebound. Plywood is starting to come down, shops are beginning to reopen and decorations are going up in windows and along the street.

“You saw the sadness from months of degradation, and challenges around safety and lack of having people around,” Hoan said. "And then you saw hope, and you saw innovation, which is what this business community does best."

Credit: Portland Business Alliance

Holidays critical to small businesses

Many businesses make the bulk of their revenue during the holidays, and after a devastating year economically, this holiday season is critical to the future of many small businesses.

Van Buskirk said any purchase helps the business community, no matter how small. And the support from customers means more than a financial boost.

“We are happy to ship little gifts to you, but if you feel like popping in and picking out the gift yourself, we sure do love seeing your face," she said. "It reminds us that our customers are still there. We miss those interactions, definitely."

'Put your money where your heart is'

Hoan and Van Buskirk asked Portlanders to take the shop local pledge and consider buying most, if not all, of their holiday gifts locally.

Hoan called it “intentional shopping.”

“We, as Portlanders, need to put our money where our heart is and support these small businesses so they can be here for us as we emerge from this pandemic,” he said.

Hoan encouraged Portlanders to show their support and keep up to date on happenings with small businesses by following them on social media and using the hashtags #ShopSmallPDX and #ShopDowntownPDX.

Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 4:30 p.m. and Monday morning at 4:30.

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