COVID-19 has changed the face of almost all of our entertainment activities and this is no less true for coffee lovers.
The once cozy cafe atmosphere has been at odds with social distancing and quarantine measures. Potential patrons hesitate to enter and cafe revenues have plummeted in response. To mitigate declining profits, Pima County partnered with the Downtown Tucson Partnership to offer a reimbursement program aimed at developing outdoor spaces.
The DTP is a non-profit corporation focused on managing the downtown business improvement district. In mid-May, the Downtown Outdoor Café Grant Program was launched with the partnership of Pima County after a survey indicated a need for increased seating. The Outdoor Café Grant is fully funded by Pima County, while the DTP conceived, pitched and now administrates the program.
Zach Baker, the DTP’s Marketing and Communications Manager, explained that the program is “intended to help businesses build, expand or enhance their cafe areas.” It covers outdoor area amenities like tables, planters, umbrellas and even partitions and floor decals that help carry out the city’s health and safety regulations.
Eligible projects can be reimbursed up to $5,000. To date, 31 separate businesses have applied and 19 have been approved. Baker assured that funding is still available and the program will continue until it has run out.
Raptor Canyon Cafe had a small patio before the pandemic struck, but afterwards it was clear to co-owner Dennis Calello that expansion would be necessary. Calello and neighbors Café 54 and Urban Fresh shared their resources to create a sidewalk seating area complete with planters, brightly colored chairs and sanitizing stations.
Initially, they were interested in building out into the street, but the number of required city approvals dissuaded them. Instead, they focused on projects covered by the reimbursement program.
“Hats off to the City of Tucson and Pima County because they were very helpful in explaining what we were allowed to do,” Calello said.
DTP advertised the outdoor improvements, and since then, Calello has “seen a number of people” visit the space. For him, the process has been a happy one and an improvement on the dismal mid-pandemic situation.
“It was a labor of love, we worked very hard at it and we’re all very happy with how it turned out,” Calello affirmed.
A short walk away is Urban Fresh, owned by Dana Padilla, and flanked by the newly constructed sidewalk seating area. Despite sharing the space, Padilla has yet to be approved for a reimbursement on her contributions, although she is satisfied with the process so far. Urban Fresh is currently closed to dine-ins, and Padilla noted that before the space was available, lots of customers asked if there was an area to sit in.
“Now this provides a place for them to just come and have a place to sit down that’s safe. It’s outdoors and the tables are spaced apart so they feel comfortable,” Padilla said.
While Padilla said it’s too early to tell whether this effort will significantly offset revenue losses from COVID-19 closures, she believes it’s “definitely an improvement for Pennington Street in general, and our businesses.”
While the Outdoor Café Grant Program provides a much needed bump for struggling businesses, its future impact is yet to be determined. The DTP plans to send a follow-up survey to approved businesses in late October to “gain analytics on how their revenue was affected,” Baker said.
This data will help DTP adjust potential future programs, and the program itself provides a template to craft new initiatives for the corporation as well as the City of Tucson and Pima County as a whole. The goal, according to Baker, has always been to share the information so it can be implemented throughout the downtown area, not just one business district.
“Downtown businesses are the pillars of our community," Baker said. "They’re the reasons our downtown area has become the pride of Tucson."
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