DORA’S Cannot Keep Local Business Alive This Winter

Photo by: Sarah Limas

The Dora, which is a designated outdoor refreshment area, was in a 90 day trial period before the city of Kent decided to keep,  modify, or potentially stop the Dora. According to Economic Development Director Tom Wilke, the city has agreed to continue the Dora indefinitely. 

Economic Development Director Tom Wilke

“We’ve been talking about this for the last couple of years or so,” Wilke said. “Some people were hesitant about it. That it might create more opportunities for miners to drink, or there might be increased rowdyism.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic gave the City of Kent the push they needed to follow through because they felt this would benefit local businesses and give local people the chance to enjoy downtown Kent while maintaining social distance. 

The Dora’s are here to stay, but they are still subject to suspensions as Portage County navigated its way through a global pandemic. On September 17th, the Dora had to be suspended for seven days due to a significant increase in positive COVID-19 tests, which caused the County to go into the red, or level 3 position. 

“The reasoning behind that was, yes, it does allow for more social distancing,” Wilke said. “But it also creates more of a reason for people to come downtown, which we want to avoid at least in the short term until the increasing number of cases either reverse itself or slows down quite a bit.” 

According to Wilke, both the police department and the health department have said they have not seen anything directly associated with the Dora that caused them concern with spreading the COVID-19 virus. 

Executive Director of Main Street Kent Heather Malarcik

Executive Director of Main Street Kent Heather Malarcik said that these are difficult situations for everyone involved, “Our community faces the challenge of remaining socially engaged in a safe way during the pandemic, and our businesses are challenged and suffering tremendously with the decline in business.” 

The Dora now provides an additional revenue stream for local businesses because it allows them to serve everyone in downtown Kent while following state COVID-19 restrictions. 

The owner of Water Street Tavern Michael Beder saw a 40 to 50 percent decrease in sales during the short period of time the Dora’s were suspended. 

“The Dora’s did significantly help,” Beder said. “Our capacity was reduced, and we just simply couldn’t do a reasonable amount of volume. It gave us the ability to serve more people. I think it gave people more comfort to come out and able to help local businesses but still feel comfortable.” 

10 of 25 local businesses in Downtown Kent participated in this survey. 

“We were fortunate that we had space where we could do a walk-up window,” Beder said. “A customer wouldn’t even have to walk into the bar to get a drink; they could walk up to this window on the street, stay outside the whole time. It wasn’t uncommon when the weather was nice to be doing 25 to 30 percent of our sales through that window.” 

Seeing local businesses struggle from week-long Dora suspension points to a much larger upcoming issue, the harsh Ohio winter. As we approach colder weather, local people will be less likely to enjoy a drink outside. 

Owner of Water Street Tavern Michael Beder

“I think places that are more alcohol heavy than food heavy probably are at a disadvantage because you see less students going out whenever the weather gets harsher,” Beder said. “The local bars thrive on students for the most part.” 

The city has looked at purchasing or renting tents and heaters for local businesses to continue serving customers in the winter, but there are several complications with this idea, and it starts with the city’s budget. 

“Rather than being able to go and make additional purchases, or expenses like tents, outdoor heaters operators, were in the position where we really have to make a cuts rather than additional purchases,” Wilke said. 

Downtown Kent is also geographically small, which would make it difficult to find locations to install tents and heaters, and the City would not be able to put up sidewalls to keep customers warm because of COVID-19 dining restrictions. 

With dining restrictions, restrictions on serving alcohol past 10 p.m., and colder weather approaching, local businesses worry about how they will survive this winter. According to Wilke, the City of Kent sees the potential for closures of small businesses over the winter. 

“We’re running such a limited schedule, the 10 o’clock curfew thing really isn’t advantageous for what we do or the customers we serve,” Beder said. “I couldn’t see us shortening hours any further. If things got bad, we just have to decide if it was worth it to be opened.” 

Beder says businesses will have to maximize their space, be innovative, and change with the times as soon as possible. He also advises the local people of Kent to “wear a mask, wash your hands and all that good stuff so we can all get through this.” 

“This is not sustainable,” Beder said. “Everyone is hanging on, they’re not really making money, and at some point, if things don’t change, people are going to ask if this is worth it and that’s where we’re going to see a lot of businesses that aren’t as fortunate are going to have to close because it doesn’t make sense to lose money every week.”