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Last year, Portland, Maine, was struggling to prepare for an economic winter of uncertainty. A push of late fall warmth had given downtown restaurants and businesses a boost following a dreadful summer. One year later, the story has changed entirely - the economy is booming, but businesses can't find workers and supply chain shortages are making it difficult for retailers to keep their shelves filled. Christopher Booker reports.
For the past year and a half every city in America has struggled with the back-and-forth of life during a pandemic: between shutdowns, partial shutdowns, re-openings and partial re-openings.
Here in Portland, Maine, that means an economy that is bustling on the one hand, struggling on the other.
NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker was here in 2020 and he came back recently to revisit some of the residents, government officials and business owners as they work on ways to move forward.
Last October when we met Mary Alice Scott, the LAST executive director of Portland buy local –– the outlook for the city's local and small businesses did not look good.
Mary Alice Scott:
We surveyed members during the height of what would normally be the busy season, and about a third of them said they were considering permanently closing.
Considering closing because the summer of 2020 was not really summer at all. Normally, it's the season that helps carry businesses through the slower winter months, but July and August of last year brought only a fraction of the normal traffic to Portland's downtown businesses and sales were down substantially.
Everything from restaurants to real estate have been really suffering. they've seen a decline in revenue, sometimes 80, 90 percent.
And that was before the winter, but as vaccines arrived in early 2021, so too did additional financial support for businesses and late last spring, as in the rest of the country, covid restrictions in Maine started to ease and Portland is a much different place than it was one year ago.
We have had a really busy year with some businesses saying that they're busier this year than they were in 2019.
But busy doesn't mean easy, as in everywhere in America, Portland's businesses are struggling to find workers.
It is rough. A lot of businesses will tell you that they've had to change their hours so close on certain days of the week, limit their service, maybe restaurants only doing dinner instead of lunch and dinner. And it's because mostly they can't find staff.
And is that because people have left the city or are they doing other things?
Yeah. So I talked to one manager recently and she said that, you know, like many businesses, they had to lay off a number of people during the height of the lockdown, and they saw that the folks who they laid off ended up leaving Portland. They went back to school, they finished school. In some cases, they started a new career or they're at home caring for small kids. And so it's several problems that make this one labor shortage really difficult to solve.
I've stood in many lines waiting because of the restaurant or that coffee shop is without workers, and I've overheard many people say, 'you know, it's these stimulus checks, it's these work support checks that are keeping people away.'
I have heard that complaint, and I think those are they're kind of done now, right? So they're not continuing in the same way that they were. Maine cut off the additional support a few months ago and instituted the requirement that people be actively looking for jobs. They reinstituted that several months ago and we're still here.
The worker shortage means businesses have to be strategic with their operating hours. We visited with Damian Sansonetti last year at Chaval, the restaurant he owns and operates with his wife, Ilma Lopez. Like so many others, Chaval was primarily a take-out restaurant at that point.
We're probably doing 50 to 60 percent less of our business than we were compared to a year ago.
A year later, Chaval is open 5 nights a week..and employing 25 people, each new hire, bringing them closer to their 2019 staffing levels when they employed nearly 40 people.
we want to eventually get back to sixth and seventh day. But you know, we're taking the baby steps because we want to make sure everybody feels good that we can work and do those things.
Are you actively looking for people to work?
Yeah, the business has been good and we want to keep expanding the business and possibly going into more days. That's why 2021 was maybe a little bit harder than certain things about 2020 were. It's not like it was in 2019, but then again, we weren't doing everything perfect then, either. So this is our time to relook and look in the mirror. And how can we make certain things better for us, for our team, for our guests?
The worker shortage is not the only headwind. Portland's businesses are also wrestling with the supply chain pressures plaguing the whole country. Kelly Fernald has owned and operated the outdoor retailer Nomads for the past 18 years. While business is much better than it was last year, supply chain problems, that run from production in Asia to delivery here, have at times forced her to turn away customers.
For each shipment that I've ordered that I've placed, I'm getting probably about 60 or 70 percent. and I'm still not even quite sure what I'm going to get from the shipments that I'm expecting in the next month or two. It's nothing like I have ever experienced.
And the situation is equally confounding for Portland's city government.
Mayor Kate Snyder:
Certainly things are different now than they were a year ago. More optimistic, but still really challenged.
Kate Snyder was elected mayor of Portland in 2019.
How are the city's receipts? Parking revenues, all of the things that go to the city's coffers?
Some receipts have rebounded, on-street parking, doing OK, garage parking, not doing great. All of those workers that we relied on coming in to spend the day at work are coming back here and they're not five days a week. So different things like cruise ship revenues, they're not coming. So city revenues are fluctuating again. We're seeing some rebound, some not.
The American Rescue Plan, or ARPA, passed last spring has helped Portland with some of the lost revenue.
In our current budget, we used ARPA funding to help bridge the gap for municipal revenues that we did not see coming in, so we used about eight and a half million dollars in order to help us balance our budget. So the fact that we needed to use federal money to plug local revenue gaps is telling. I think we will see that again in fiscal year '23 and likely up by '24.
So as the mayor, do you consider Portland to be in a period of recovery? Are we still in the middle of all of this?
I would say both. I would say we're definitely recovering and we deal day-to-day deal with challenges that have resulted from COVID and all of the myriad impacts of this pandemic.
And then there are Portland's most COVID challenged businesses– like the State Theatre. When we met general Lauren Wayne in 2020, the outlook was grim.
We had to lay off most of our, if not all of our part-time staff and our seasonal staff. And that was really hard.
How many people?
That was about 170 people. And some of these people have been with us, sorry, since we reopened in 2010. So it was really difficult and still very difficult. We have no hope in opening this year. I mean, what business can survive generating zero revenue for over a year? I don't know any business or industry that can. So if we do not see some kind of targeted federal legislation to this industry in particular, it will be massive closures across the whole country. And in Portland, Maine in particular, that's going to hurt really bad.
Targeted funds did arrive. In July they received money from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, a fund created by Congress as part of the economic relief bill passed in December of 2020. The money arrived just as outdoor COVID restrictions started to ease -allowing the State Theatre group to hold outdoor concerts in July and August and then on August 31st, after being closed for 535 days, the state theatre opened its doors again, with Melissa Etheridge taking the stage.
What did that feel like for you?
Oh man, I don't know. It went from like crying and laughing and hysterically like, I look like, I don't know. It was awesome.
Did you think you would make it a year ago?
I did. I– I was fairly confident we would because there was not really another option for, for me and for us. And I just I was pretty determined to make sure that we reopened and honestly, without the money, that would have been almost impossible.
Tonight, a month and a half since it reopened, the band Spoon is taking the stage.
We're still not seeing 100 percent, you know, ticketholders show up at a show. We're having 20, 25 percent, 30 percent less scan rates, which is really a struggle for a small, independent venue because it's not only the ticket sales, which, you know, a majority of those are going to the artists, your ancillaries and concessions and your food and beverage, which are really integral to this business and those are down. So I don't foresee those, you know, normalizing for quite some time. The pandemic is not over. It doesn't look like it's going to end anytime soon. So we just are trying to adapt to that right now.
How far out are you planning? What do you have shows booked through the winter?
Yeah, I mean, listen, well, I'm planning and booking shows the same way as I did. The only different well, there's a lot of differences, but the main difference is really you're– you're taking it instead of one month at a time, you're literally taking it one show at a time because you never know if it's going to pay off. And then the day of the show, when the band is setting up, it's like the sigh of relief. We're like, It's happening.
If we come back in a year, where do you think you are and where do you hope you are?
I hope I'm right up there drinking a beer. Just kidding at a show. I feel like I would love to see us back at 29 to 19 pre-pandemic levels where it's you're never going to have to worry about show cancelation unless an artist is like, you know, there's a winter storm and they can't make it. You're never going to have staff shortages. You know, 100% of your ticket holders on your show of your show, which you know, rarely ever happens. But 95% would be really good and just, you know, everybody being a little less– less stressed about if the show is going to happen.
Do you think you'll be there?
I think we will. I think we're actually really close to getting there.
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Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
Sam Weber has covered everything from living on minimum wage to consumer finance as a shooter/producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior joining NH Weekend, he previously worked for Need to Know on PBS and in public radio. He’s an avid cyclist and Chicago Bulls fan.
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