Of the 96 businesses in the Aggieville Business District, 48 are temporarily closed because of the COVID-19 social distancing. Director of the Aggieville Business Association Dennis Cook said none of the businesses have given up yet.
“Most of them are all in some altered business model, whether it’s just doing business by schedule or doing business for pickup or to go,” Cook said. “It’s a strange and weird time for everybody down here.”
On the west side of Aggieville, Bluestem Bistro is one of the businesses that has shifted to a to go model with delivery and curbside pickup also available. Nancy Evangelidis, general manager of Bluestem Bistro, said while it’s better than nothing, sales are down significantly.
“If you are familiar at all with Bluestem Bistro, part of the charm of any restaurant that has a lobby is the ability to be able to be there and hangout and have meetings,” she said. “That’s a difficult thing for us that we can’t do that now. Our sales are down quite a bit. However, we are able to maintain a pretty light crew and we had to modify our hours simply from a cost standpoint.”
Cook said the situation is an economic disaster, noting that even if they can reopen in the summertime, the traffic from college students will be gone.
On March 31, the City Commission voted to release $500,000 from the economic development funds for emergency relief.
“We’re encouraging anybody who has some immediate, vital, essential needs for some cash to help pay some bills that they can’t [pay] otherwise, they can apply for that and get some quick turnaround with some cash on some zero percent interest loans,” Cook said.
Evangelidis said Bluestem Bistro is trying to help employees in whatever way possible, including applying for loans and unemployment.
“Our intent is to do all that we can, but I’m not sure how long we can maintain this,” she said. “I believe that our economy is built on small businesses and that’s what holds everything up.”
Jeff Denney, president of Auntie Mae’s Parlor, Inc., is trying to get a loan through the Small Business Association.
“Things are a little nerve-wracking,” Denney said. “For a lot of them, it’s probably not enough, but we’re doing the best we can.”
He said he is trying to take the situation one day at a time.
“When you’re not purchasing items, and you’re not paying a staff, you can stretch things out a little bit,” Denney said. “We sell some things online, we can pay some bills and keep the lights on. Hopefully, by the end of June or July or something we can open the doors again.”
Auntie Mae’s opened in 1974, and Denney said he’s worked there since 1992. He said what he misses the most about being open is his staff and regular customers.
“I kind of fell into this business, but I always thought to myself, ‘Well, there’s always going to be a need for people to go out and socialize and have a beer and talk with their friends,’” he said. “And I never could’ve imagined anything where that just ends.”
Cook said he estimates that 880 employees have been let go or laid off from Aggieville, and of those, 75 percent are not local, and thus not able to spend any money in Aggieville now either.
“There’s some businesses out there that they’ve got enough money behind them to sustain, they can ride this out,” he said. “There’s obviously businesses out there that either haven’t been in business long enough to build up cash reserves or they are just the type of business that their cash reserves are only as deep as two or three months.”
The best ways to support these business, Cook said, is to go to the ones that are still in business and to take part in the MHK Together program, which also helps people struggling financially get groceries. Denney and Evangelidis also said buying gift cards can help.
Once the business are able to open again, Cook said he thinks business will be booming.
“When we do come out of this I think people will pour back into these businesses, really come to the aid of local businesses and support these types of things,” he said. “I think business will be amazing, but you’ve got to be able to hold on until then, and that’s the question, can that be done?”