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In Southeast D.C., Community Organizations Use Data And Creativity To Support Local Businesses

Capitol Riverfront business has shifted outside to help people practice social distancing.

Coronavirus cases are once again on the rise throughout the D.C. area, with reports from this past Sunday showing that the seven-day rolling average of new cases was higher in D.C., Maryland and Virginia than it was the previous week. 

As a result of these rising numbers, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that the city's coronavirus state of emergency will remain in place through the end of the year and urged businesses to use caution when welcoming back their employees and customers. 

While many offices, shops and restaurants were able to resume operations when D.C. entered Phase 2 of its reopening plan on June 22, local businesses throughout D.C. continue to struggle. In Southeast D.C., local officials are taking a proactive approach to support small businesses with programs that can cater to their unique needs.

“What you see here is not the same as what you see in NoMa or downtown D.C.,” said Stan Jackson, president and CEO of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp. “We need a program that is unique for our particular area. We can’t use a cookie-cutter approach, which is why we designed our own tools.” 


Using A Data-Driven Approach 

For Jackson and Kristina Noell, executive director of the Anacostia Business Improvement District, sitting around waiting for local businesses to apply for the grants they needed to stay afloat wasn't enough. Instead, the ABID and the AEDC teamed up to create a unique, data-driven approach to ensure that every small business in Anacostia and the surrounding neighborhoods has what it needs to weather the storm. 

Noell used data from D.C.’s Open Data Portal to discover how many business licenses are active in D.C. Wards 7 and 8, which cover Anacostia and several nearby neighborhoods. She discovered approximately 7,800 licenses and got to work contacting every single one to learn how they were faring during the pandemic and what they needed to stay in business. She also sent out surveys to learn more about how businesses are currently operating. 

Noell and the AEDC and ABID teams used this data to create some key tools that have been working to help local businesses. The first is a comprehensive online database of small businesses that includes a portal that owners can use to connect them to government agencies and grants that may be able to help them, like the East of the River Micro-Grant program and the Small Business Resiliency Fund. The portal will launch in 2021 and will be updated regularly with information on which grants are still available. 

“The site will assist with bringing consumer attention to East-of-the-River businesses and gather important small-business data,” Noell said. “In the meantime, we will continue to connect and support all of the businesses in Ward 8 and Ward 7. We know that our businesses are facing a lot of the same issues. However, we also are aware that they need individualized attention, almost like a case management approach for businesses.” 

The second tool is a weekly phone call business owners can join that features a recurring panel of experts and a rotating list of guest speakers who can offer tips on how businesses can survive these tough times. The experts include Noell and Jackson, Nikki Peele from reSPIN Public Relations, who offer marketing strategies, and a certified public accountant from local accounting firm TSC Enterprise who can offer important tips on how businesses can get their paperwork in order to apply for loans and grants. 

Noell said the goal is to build a village around the business community, to use the same people on the calls each week so business owners would get to know them and feel comfortable sharing the challenges they’re facing applying for grants. 

“We’ve come to find out that with all the grants that have become available, a lot of our businesses are just not prepared on the back end to apply for them,” Noell said. “We’ve gotten to a point now where we know the businesses and what they would qualify for. Now, we’ve started matching businesses to the right grants, and offering them help with their paperwork through TSC.” 

Noell said Anacostia and its neighbors haven't lost a significant number of businesses, which she attributes not only to the help of local agencies like the BID and the AEDC, but to the resilience of the community. 

“East of the River people are used to struggling and used to thinking outside of the box,” Noell said. “I am really proud of them for being able to navigate through COVID-19 well.” 


Keeping The Community Safe, Stable And Entertained 

Across the Anacostia River, the Capitol Riverfront BID has also been coming up with unique initiatives to support local businesses and the community. The #CapRivCares campaign helped raise $10K for Van Ness Elementary students in need of technology to study from home and supplemental lunch meals, while digital campaigns including a virtual #CapRivCoffeeBreak, a Date Night Challenge and a virtual Oktoberfest Crawl have been encouraging residents to support local businesses. 

The BID has also been editing its website regularly, offering real-time updates on local restaurants and businesses, including whether they are offering delivery or takeout, if they have patio seating and links for patrons to purchase gift cards. The site also features a summary of federal, state and local financial assistance available to small businesses. 

The Capitol Riverfront BID has also been partnering with local businesses to host a series of events to keep residents entertained in a safe way. These include a Virtual Fitness Series, in coordination with VIDA Fitness, to bring yoga, Pilates and dance fitness classes to the residential community on a weekly basis and the “Friday Nights from Home” Concert Series, in partnership with DC Fray, to bring the famed local Friday Night Concert series to the virtual stage. Finally, the BID relaunched its popular Outdoor Movie Series in Buzzard Point next to Audi Field. 

Looking ahead, the BID is hoping to support local restaurants with a heater bulk-purchase initiative for restaurants, to allow them to continue outdoor dining. 

Only time will tell how Southeast D.C. businesses will fare once the pandemic has passed, but for now, they have ample local resources they turn to in order to get the help they need.