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FORT BRAGG, 4/15/20 — Last Tuesday afternoon, a lone Honda Civic rolled past the perpendicular parking places along Laurel Street in Fort Bragg, all but one now empty. The usually bustling Headlands Coffeehouse was as quiet as the town’s favorite golden payphone out front, vigorously defended from removal in happier times.
Most of Fort Bragg, like the rest of the country, is closed. But when the tourists can no longer visit and the cash registers are all closed, how can the town’s businesses survive? We talked to local business owners and looked at the new bailout programs to gain some insight.
Amid the silence, signs spoke from nearly every storefront. And not the, “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind.” kind of signs.
Fort Bragg’s ubiquitous handwritten messages in business windows were messages to inform customers and give hope. Each business had personalized messages for its customers, ranging from intimate to practical. The restaurant Cucina Verona provides “Everything will be OK” on a colorful handwritten banner.
The square block of Laurel, Franklin, Redwood and Main back to Laurel that fronts The Guest House and The Company Store is the literal heart of Fort Bragg shopping, tourism, bars, and dining. On Tuesday, most of the restaurants were open for takeout, staff seen sitting quietly inside and waiting for a lone lunchtime customer, let alone the rush.
Coast Hardware, an essential business by definition, was no busier than usual but with a new array of safety equipment and measures. There were no socks, shoes, men’s pants, art, toys or office supplies. The quiet contrasted with the bright sunlight. Two teenagers chasing each other were the only human traffic along Main.
Maureen Leahy, owner of The Bookstore and Vinyl Café, which sits nicely in a row among closed sock, shoe and gem stores on Laurel Street, says business is down more than 90% as the business is closed except for special delivery.
“Faithful luddite customers are phoning us to place their special orders — we are their book lifeline,” she said. The Bookstore doesn’t sell online.
“We are not making many sales obviously but I do expect we can survive. Most of the other Fort Bragg business owners I’m in close contact with are struggling so that’s hardly inspirational. I think our little store can chug along, however, and that brings me comfort,” Leahy said.
Leahy bought The Bookstore, long a distinguished fixture in downtown Fort Bragg, nine years ago from the late Jennifer Wolfman. She and husband Anthony Koller and their family have greatly increased its size and selection and adding vinyl records, coffee and other fun. Bookstores can be scary in the age of the Kindle but there are some advantages right now.
“We don’t have vendors to contend with: we owe nothing. Our inventory is ours and we can open anywhere if we have to, but our landlord is being great,” Leahy said. Many Fort Bragg landlords have given breaks on rent, tenants reported.
Every business has had to innovate, from restaurants completely redoing menus to meet takeout demand to shops putting everything on Ebay while isolating at home.
“We’re getting special order requests nearly every day now so our Facebook ads are working. We’ve never been big on self promotion until now,” Leahy said.
Megan Caron runs a store full of treasures called Lost Coast Found with the attached Larry Spring Museum, dedicated to the big ideas of Fort Bragg’s beloved self styled inventor, who operated the Larry Spring School of Common Sense Physics in the late 20th century. Spring was an early adopter of solar power and made what he called his Mendocino Brushless Levitating Solar Motors to demonstrate both the power of electromagnetism and solar energy. Caron has seen so many others in much greater need that she did not join the initial tidal wave of applicants for relief.
“I have yet to actually apply for anything. The [building owner] told me not to worry about my rent at the moment. I just figure let other people apply who really need it at the moment. I don’t really know of anyone who has applied yet,” she said.
Millions are applying for multiple layers of aid now available, but often difficult to access. The sheer numbers of people applying for help with the economic crunch is overwhelming state websites set up to provide aid to workers, small businesses and on taxes. The California Employment Development Department (EDD) website is reported to be the most overtaxed, but phone calls to four different California state customer websites on Monday and Tuesday revealed messages that said nobody was available to help. There was no usual option to wait for the next representative- the messages said there were just too many calls and to call back later. The Sacramento Bee documented the overwhelming of the EDD site in a recent story, with many social media forums also documenting the problems.
“We aren’t coping. We are dead. It sounds like it may be three to five months before we get any check…from anyone — even though we’ve applied for everything,” said Churchill.
Churchill has been trying every source of help to keep her dream business going. She is hoping to get through to the West Business Development Company (previously West Company) locally, which she said wants to help but has been as busy as the rest. West is one of the storefronts with its own sign out front in the heart of the Franklin Street district that directs users to call.
“We haven’t had any income in three weeks, and have given over $6000 in refunds,” Churchill said. She said the coronavirus disaster hit at the end of a slow winter season just as that summer revenue was about to flow.
It took Churchill more than 5 years to purchase the inn, due to renovations, loan and escrow requirements, finally closing the deal in 2018. The property had been rated last on Trip Advisor, an online ratings service, when Churchill and her mother started the purchase in 2012, soon managing the property.
“It was bad,” she said.
That has changed. They turned the bed and breakfast business around making big upgrades visible to the community and Trip Adviser.
“We’ve been number one on Trip Advisor with the exception of a couple months since 2019…which I feel very proud of. Took us only one year to raise our reviews that far,” Churchill said.
Despite all that, the business was a profit challenge, even in good times.
“Small inns just are not profitable, which we would have realized if we’d done any research at all…but we were way too idealistic in the beginning.”
Ryan Genaro, who runs Fort Bragg’s historic Hopper Dairy, delivers ice cream, milk and cheese to restaurants from Point Arena to Westport. Suddenly, the restaurants have closed or cut way back, and Genaro has improvised, letting customers order dairy products direct. The winning product right now?
“Ice cream. Everybody is home right now and they want ice cream,” Genaro said.
He’s been too busy to file for any of the government relief programs.
In addition to sellers of ice cream, many others have seen business stay flat or increase during the disaster.
Driving through all of town last Tuesday, businesses were either totally silent or busy. Auto shops all had customers, along with liquor, grocery, small markets and the drug stores. But even so, it was starkly visible that shelter in place was working from the diminished number of cars from the usual, even in those parking lots.
Fort Bragg’s marquee business, North Coast Brewing remains working. Sales of alcoholic products nationwide were up 55 percent in the last two weeks of March, according to a Daily Beast report.
Wednesday is the closest thing to a busy day in Fort Bragg now, with the Fort Bragg Certified Farmers Market going on downtown.
Some businesses closed when shelter in place first hit on March 18, while others stayed open longer. And there is no end date in sight. All Aboard Adventures, which offers sport fishing on the Sea Hawk out of Fort Bragg’s Noyo Harbor, sent out a letter to customers on March 18, when county, state and national leaders had expressed hopes it would be safe to resume life in early April. They remain closed.
“Sadly, we will be shutting down until this all passes…I know many people have booked trips and have plans to go crabbing or whale watching,” said ‘Captain’ Tim Gillespie in a letter to the community and customers posted on Facebook. “Keeping our guests and crew safe is the utmost importance. Keep safe my friends. And don’t worry! The fish, crabs (and if not too long, the whales) will still be there. They will just be hungrier!” Gillespie wrote.
The CARES ACT, signed by President Trump on March 27, provides $379 billion in relief for American workers and small businesses. Businesses have opportunities to get a variety of new loans through local bankers.
Katie Kight, director of marketing and community outreach for Savings Bank of Mendocino County said there has been a high volume of calls this week in response to the new loan programs. Savings Bank has assigned three loan officers, Sid Harper, Jose Ortiz and Renee Elliott, to help out of the main office in Ukiah and working as a team with loan officers in Fort Bragg and other places. They can be contacted at 707.462.6613 or by emailing them with their first initial last names at savingsbank.com, Kight said.
One of the most terrifying aspects for businesses is the open ended time frame.
“They are going to have to revise the shelter in place order if they expect all of us to stay at home through the end of May, “ said Brent Novick in a Facebook discussion. “Most of the small business owners I know in Point Arena, Gualala and Sea Ranch are barely hanging on, and many closed. Who knows if they will even re-open. The damage to the local economy will be long lasting. It is way beyond a if/when the virus gets under control,” Novick wrote on Facebook.
“The county can’t keep pushing the goal posts without showing some solutions and ability to get us moving forward again. And unless you’re a billionaire you can’t just stay closed off forever,” Novick wrote on Facebook.
What will happen next?
“Most of us are in the same boat. They can’t evict us all,” Churchill said.
The following information was provided by Congressman Jared Huffman’s office.
This CARES Act was approved a little more than a week ago and includes several new programs that will directly help people in California’s 2nd District. For individuals and families, the CARES Act:
- Provides a direct cash rebate of up to $1,200 per taxpayer and $500 per child
- Expands eligibility for Unemployment Compensation to those who are not usually eligible, including those who are self-employed and independent contractors
- Provides an additional $600 per week to each recipient of Unemployment Compensation for 4 months and extends benefits for those whose benefits were scheduled to expire
- Defers student loan payments on Federally-backed student loans and stops interest accrual for 6 months
- Waives the tax on seniors who elect not to take the Required Minimum Distribution from their retirement accounts in 2020
- Limits evictions for renters and foreclosures for homeowners with Federally-backed mortgages
- Ensures COVID-19 testing is covered by all private insurance plans without cost sharing
The CARES Act also provides $376 billion in relief for small and medium-sized businesses and nonprofits through:
- Paycheck Protection Program: Provides loans to employers to maintain payroll. If payroll is maintained, the loan is forgiven.
- Emergency Economic Injury Grant: Provides an advance, which does not need to be repaid, of up to $10,000 within 3 days of applying for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan.
- Small Business Debt Relief Program: Provides immediate relief with non-disaster loans and microloans.
- Tax Provisions: Provides employee retention credit for employers subject to closure or economic hardship through a refundable payroll tax for 50% of wages and delays payment of employer payroll taxes.