When we introduced you to Gloria Garcia a year ago, she had just joined Van Ness Main Street as its new executive director. A few weeks after she started the job, Garcia and the local businesses the nonprofit serves were contending with an unprecedented shutdown in a pandemic like we haven’t seen in a century.
We asked Garcia to share her thoughts about the challenges of the past year and the organization’s plans and hopes for the year ahead.
Forest Hills Connection: We first reached out to you when you were hired at the beginning of last year. Little did you know what you were getting into, with the pandemic descending on us and making this a very difficult climate for businesses. What were you thinking and what were the challenges you faced in providing support to our small businesses?Gloria Garcia: To say I have never experienced anything in my career like this first year at VNMS is really an understatement. Right off the bat, I was incredibly lucky to have such an engaged board and also the expert support of Cherie Lester, a community marketing and business development guru [who was serving as the VNMS interim executive director].
As you can imagine, I had a bit of a learning curve but within two very short months, we were faced with complete closures of businesses and the learning curve faded away – we were in full crisis. While I live right on Connecticut Avenue and knew many of the businesses already, I didn’t know all of them; nor did I have relationships based on experience and trust in my new role. In a way, the pandemic helped me build these relationships quickly.
At the beginning, the main streets were told to stay home and work remotely, meaning don’t get out there one-on-one. As a new ED, this didn’t work in reaching them only by email or phone. So I double masked, bought face shields, and started going to the businesses – especially those that weren’t responding – to make sure that they knew about the VNMS and DC Grant Programs and PPP once the CARES Act was enacted. This work is 90 percent face-to-face and the businesses appreciated seeing me or Cherie once we got out there. The second challenge was our expansion to Nebraska Avenue, bringing in another 15 businesses during the pandemic!
FHC: What do you consider your greatest accomplishments of the past year?
GG: The first was going to the board for immediate approval of our VNMS grant program for Covid relief in March. With the board’s wholehearted approval, VNMS was able to grant $56,000 to 10 businesses both in the lower and upper corridors over the following three months. This provided a much needed bridge until PPP came through. We also provided nearly 1,000 hours in technical assistance that led to businesses receiving more than $150,000 in additional grants from other sources. The majority of our businesses also received PPP.
Finally, while we lost two businesses [Sushi Para and Diplomat Cleaners], we have opened four new ones with a fifth moving in at the corner of Albemarle and Connecticut: Shemali’s Gourmet Market. VNMS was also able to take all of its events to virtual platforms, holding our first Silent Auction, our 5th Annual Holiday Pop-Up, and a holiday concert to raise funds. Through this pandemic, we have been able to raise nearly $40,000, including two businesses that gave back to VNMS!
FHC: Amid all of this, there is a changing of the guard on the Van Ness Main Street board. Tell us about who is saying goodbye, who you are welcoming, and who is taking on new leadership roles.
GG: Yes, we did have board changes through this too! We said goodbye to board member and event committee chair Patricia Davies, board member and design committee chair Matt Dreher, and to our board president, Sarah Cumbie. Their work and support during my first year was invaluable. But I know that I can rely on them still and Matt Dreher will continue serving on the design committee.
Last month, we welcomed five new board members: Doug Loescher, Jonquilyn Hill, Steve Shulman, Joff Masukawa, and Michael Triebwasser, who has agreed to serve as secretary of the board. Later this month, the board will vote on the officer slate that rounds out our executive committee, with Barbara Lardy as president; Reginald Felton, vice president; and Michael Sands, treasurer.
FHC: Now explain a bit about the Van Ness Main Street committees, what they do and your need for additional members.
GG: Van Ness Main Street has several committees that work to move our mission forward and work on our strategic priorities. Our committees are composed both of community members and Van Ness Main Street board members. The committees are Organization (board members only), Economic Business Development, Design, and Events and Promotions. Some committees meet monthly while others only quarterly, although committees may need to meet more often in case of an upcoming event or if a priority goal heats up. The committees are a great way for resident advocates and activists to get involved in the viability, walkability, and overall economic health of our beautiful corridor. If you’re interested in serving on a committee, please email [email protected] with the word “Committee” in the subject line.
FHC: As you look at the upcoming year, what are your hopes and goals?
GG: The theme for this year is “Stronger Together.”
We are now a larger business community – from Van Ness Street to Nebraska Ave – with a powerful voice in the city. This theme of unity can be seen on the southern wall of The Hastings at 4444 Conn Ave in our ongoing light art installation.
My top hope is that the vaccine rollout will soon include all of our frontline restaurant and retail workers and then more of the general population so that we can have UDC students, Howard Law students, Whittle School, Levine School of Music, WAMU and all embassy staff back out in our community. Until then, my hope is that our incredible residents continue to support the businesses as they have this past year. It is going to take all of us to make it through.
We have several goals this year. They include launching an Equity Grant Program and a VNMS Grant Program. Through the Equity Grant Program, we have already granted more than $23,000 in direct funds to six minority- and woman-owned businesses. Our corridor counts 62 percent minority-owned and 35 percent woman-owned businesses. Our VNMS Grant Program, open to all businesses, launched this past week. We have to continue to help our businesses survive.
And I am really looking forward to the blooming of the nearly 1,900 bulbs that were planted along the corridor through our “Spring Forward” initiative. Master Gardener Kathy Sykes and her husband Steve Vetzner led more than 50 volunteers over five weekends of planting. Connecticut Avenue will look beautiful!