Van Ness Main Street has long had its work cut out for it. Charged with putting the Van Ness commercial corridor on the map, the 4.5-year-old organization’s mission has expanded northward to include the Connecticut Avenue shopping district between Fessenden Street and Nebraska Avenue. It serves 39 small and local businesses, including 22 minority-owned, 14 women-owned, and 14 legacy businesses (15 years or older).
And then the pandemic hit. During the first days of the District-mandated shutdowns, Van Ness Main Street provided $54,000 in direct cash grants to businesses. The new executive director, Gloria Garcia, hand-delivered the checks in many cases. This was well before anyone could tap DC emergency grants, SBA loans and PPP funds under the CARES Act.
The swift aid prompted the owner of Comet Ping Pong, Buck’s Fishing and Camping and the yet-to-open Buckaroos to send a thank you note.
“Van Ness Main Street’s support this week is unprecedented for my businesses and our staff,” James Alefantis wrote in the March 18th email. “We have had hardships before – and never has anyone or any organization supported us as quickly and efficiently.”
These details of Van Ness Main Street’s efforts in the early days of the Covid-19 crisis were revealed in testimony during the June 16th DC Council budget hearing on the DC Main Streets. Mayor Bowser’s FY 2021 budget provides $3.7 million for the Department of Small and Local Business Development program, a $444,000 increase from FY 2019.
The DC Council Economic Development Committee Chair Kenyan McDuffie and other Council members heard witnesses tell the story of how the District’s 21 Main Streets have functioned as the main support for small and local businesses during the pandemic.
Marlene Berlin, a founding member and former president of Van Ness Main Street, spoke on behalf of VNMS with testimony developed by Executive Director Garcia. (Berlin is also Forest Hills Connection’s editor in chief.) In addition to the grants in the first days of the shutdowns, Berlin said, the Main Street has provided more than 200 hours of technical assistance, resulting in one business receiving a Robust Retail Grant for $7,500, and nine businesses receiving DC Emergency Grant funding totaling $82,000. Van Ness Main Street also raised another $24,000 for supporting local businesses.
Another Van Ness Main Street founder and past president submitted testimony highlighting the new restaurants and retail that have come here under the Main Street’s watch, including Sfoglina and Uptown Market. Mary Beth Ray also laid out a vision of a Van Ness that’s a “thriving, walkable, sustainable, beautiful Main Street. Our existing businesses will thrive, and new businesses will begin to ask, ‘Why aren’t we in Van Ness yet?'”
UDC President Ronald Mason provided written testimony on the importance of the partnership between the university and VNMS “on many endeavors” including the UDC Van Ness farmers market, and UDC’s efforts to earn income from its large retail real estate holdings.
“[Van Ness Main Street] has joined us in conducting the Van Ness Retail Study, a critical exploration of the best retail options for our students, the University at large, and the local community,” Mason wrote. “VNMS also has been a great resource for promoting University programs, events, and initiatives throughout the community.”
Even if the DC Council approves the $3.7 million set aside for Main Streets in the mayor’s budget, each Main Street remains responsible for raising money from its community to support its efforts to assist small and local businesses.
As of June 19th, Van Ness Main Street had raised $8,000 toward the $12,000 it needs to raise by June 30th to qualify for necessary accelerated funding by the Department of Small and Local Business Development. It’s welcoming donations as well as bids and purchases in its silent auction. Local businesses have donated goods and services. The auction ends at noon on Thursday, June 25th.