Kent businesses brace themselves for challenges ahead amid pandemic

By: Sarah Limas and Chris Ramos

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the City of Kent to confront grim realities surrounding its economic conditions. Revenue for bars, restaurants, and live entertainment has been gutted as businesses face a long road ahead to return to normalcy.

There are currently five total vacancies in the downtown Kent area. Gracylane, One Love Yoga, Pizza Fire, Peace Love and Little Donuts, and Twisted Candy Co. have permanently closed their doors. 

Tom Wilke, Kent City Economic Development Director

According to Tom Wilke, Kent city economic development director, a fruit juice bar will be moving into the location where Peace, Love and Little Donuts used to be. 

Local popcorn shop, Popped! has relocated to the building which housed Twisted Candy Co. and an unnamed business has expressed interest in filling the Pizza Fire vacancy. 

“We’ve been very fortunate so far,” Wilke said. “We have only had two to three closures that are directly related to the pandemic, including Gracylane. Another one was the Continental Grill on East Main Street [which] just closed, and they said it was directly related to the pandemic. Peace Love and Little Donuts we really had no communication with.”

Relief for bars and restaurants 

In terms of relief, there are several grants available for small businesses that have helped some local bars and restaurants in downtown Kent. The city has a small business COVID-19 relief grant program created through CARES Act money, putting aside $100,000. So far, a total of $80,000 in financial relief has been distributed to Grazers, Venice Café, Water Street Tavern, Scribbles Coffee Co., Little City Grill, Tree City Coffee, and Bent City Coffee. 

Portage County also set aside $500,000 in CARES Act money for a small business grant program. 

Michael Beder, owner of Water Street Tavern and Venice Cafe

Michael Beder, owner of Water Street Tavern, said the application process was arduous. 

“They demand a lot of paperwork, and also, I had to get my employees involved to some degree,” he said. “I’m happy for the help, but it was a painful process, to be honest.”

In October, Gov. Mike DeWine announced that the administration developed a package of over $419.5 million in CARES Act funding to help small businesses, restaurants and bars, hospitals, higher education, arts, nonprofits, and low-income Ohioans impacted financially by the pandemic.

“On Oct. 23, the state announced that they were going to take some of their CARES Act money and divide it into three different programs,” Wilke said. “One was a small business assistance relief program providing $10,000 grants, similar to what the city was doing. They set aside, I believe, $125 million for that. Then they set aside $37.5 million for the bar and restaurant assistance program. The third one helped residents with things like utilities, mortgages, rents,  and things like that.”

Water Street Tavern has consistently been a popular bar in downtown Kent over the years.
Chris Ramos

Ohio’s small business relief grant was on a first-come, first-serve basis. To qualify, owners had to submit a 2019 income tax return, a bill from the past 60 days, and a payroll stub that showed they employed 25 people or less. Wilke said it takes 15 to 20 minutes at most. 

According to Beder, the application process for the Ohio relief grant program was much easier than Kent’s relief grant program. 

“They were extremely simple. The liquor license relief you just had to add your liquor license number,” Beder said. “I didn’t have any issues, then I immediately got an email back saying I was approved, and it was very quick.”

Small businesses in Kent could have applied for all three relief grants but whether these will be enough to keep businesses alive remains to be seen. Wilke believes these relief grants will make a significant difference to many businesses.

“I give the state a lot of credit,” Wilke said. “You might wonder how much $10,000 will help, and it depends on the business. For some businesses that could buy them through months of existence, and it might be exactly what they need to get through what is taking place out there.”

 However, not all local businesses feel this way. 

“For the two places I used the money for, there are high overheads there, and it helps for a month or so,” Beder said. “$10,000 sounds like a lot, and don’t get me wrong, it’s generous and helpful, but it helps for a month, honestly. Almost no matter what your business is, you can get a month of value from it, but that’s it. I’m appreciative of it, but also, I’m aware that it’s not the be-all-end-all by any means.” 

The $10,000 grant allows Beder to be able to take some risks in regards to staffing. He said rent, mortgage, property taxes, insurance, and utilities had not changed much despite the limited operating hours. He plans to use this money to provide relief for those costs and employ more people. 

Status of live entertainment

Originally a movie theater, The Kent Stage was constructed in 1927. Simpson said the theater was on its last leg when he took it over.
Chris Ramos

Taking over The Kent Stage in 2002, owner Tom Simpson sought to keep the music scene alive in Kent. A former Kent State student himself, Simpson had been involved with booking shows at the university and was involved with the annual Kent Folk Festival.

The Kent Stage embodied Simpson’s love for folk music as the venue focused primarily on folk acts but grew to include genres across the board and included theatrical productions. And one show per month turned into booking between 120 to 150 shows per year, said Simpson. 

However, the excitement and continued success of delivering live performances to Kent came to a screeching halt in March at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We were really having a great year until March 11th, and then it all went, it stopped, you know, it all stopped, and we’re still closed,” Simpson said. “All of our people that were employed here are no longer employed here. They’re all laid off.”

Despite a sold-out show featuring blues artist Christone “Kingfish” Ingram on March 12, Simpson decided that the show and every show afterward would have to be postponed. This decision came before state orders required the venue to be shut down indefinitely. 

“The situation just started getting funkier and funkier,” Simpson said. “We’ve canceled only one show, I believe. And we postponed the rest of them, and 90% of the people are holding onto their tickets because we have a great relationship with our clientele.” 

Simpson decided not to take federal relief grants for The Kent Stage because he originally believed the pandemic would be curbed in a few weeks. And although Kent has small grant opportunities for businesses, he felt as though other businesses in the area would be better suited to use them since The Kent Stage has completely ceased operations. 

Those laid off by The Kent Stage include box office workers, bartenders, stage crew, sound technicians, and lighting technicians. Even Simpson has not been at the venue, stating “I’m not even there, nobody’s employed there at this time.” 

Ties with employees are not severed though as The Kent Stage expects to have all of its employees back when it can fully open. 

“I remember talking with some of the guys ‘this will be great to have a little break’, and then after a while you get a little stir crazy,” Simpson said. “Personally, you know, we’ve worked for 18 years to get to the place we were at, only to be shut down. And it gets frustrating.”  

Financial hit for The Kent Stage

Financials for The Kent Stage are down 83% this year compared to where the venue was at last year during this time, Simpson said. The significant hit won’t derail operations for the venue, but the uncertainty of the pandemic leaves 2021 up in the air for The Kent Stage. 

Referring back to the venue’s strong relationship with clientele, locals have been lending emotional support to Simpson and the venue along with donations and purchasing merchandise. 

“We do have a poster website that we’ve started called TheKentStagePosters.com. It has most of the posters from most of the bands that have played here,” Simpson said, “that people are starting to buy which also supports the venue.” 

Simpson misses the personal satisfaction of running a successful show and seeing the enjoyment of attendees as well as getting to spend time with his crew. He said the world of entertainment has arguably suffered the most due to the pandemic and also said the temporary closure of The Kent Stage has lingering effects on businesses nearby. 

“It’s an entertainment venue, but it’s an economic machine because everybody that comes here spends some money elsewhere. No, not everybody, but the majority of the people that come to The Kent Stage will spend money in other places in Kent,” Simpson said. “When people come to a show here, they go to the bar. They go to Rays, they go to Laziza, they go to all the restaurants.” 

Forecast for the coming months

A notice posted on the front doors of the now vacant building where Gracylane used to operate.
Chris Ramos

Revenue is down for many small businesses around the nation, and with winter ahead, there are concerns about the future of downtown Kent specifically. Wilke said the city anticipates at least a couple more closures yet remains hopeful for a thriving future. 

Wilke said that based on income tax revenue the City of Kent was up 8.4% in the first quarter. Then they were down 17% in the second due to businesses shutting down. In the third quarter however there was some misleading data that shows the city was up 8%. 

“That is misleading in a large part because of the University,” he said. “Kent State University is by far the largest employer. They contribute about 35% of our income tax and when they did budget cuts and buyouts back in June, July, and August they took our income tax revenue from a negative 17% to a positive 8%.”

Wilke predicts that in the fourth quarter the City of Kent will be down in the 6 or 7% range largely due to the hospitality related businesses still being down. 

Beder also predicts the city will see some more closures this year. 

“I think it’ll take a couple of years to rebound to what it was, but we’ve got a strong community, and with Kent State, I think it will all come back,” Beder said. “It’ll take a while; you have to question when people are going to feel comfortable packing themselves into a bar again like they used to.”

Statistics and information gathered from WalletHub

Sarah Limas – Interviewed Michael Beder, Tom Wilke, and made infographics

Chris Ramos- Interviewed Tom Simpson, captured photographs.