We know that downtowns are merely assemblages of brick and mortar. But they also possess heartbeats and souls, much like us. Which means they can falter and fall, wither and wane.
Much like us.
When COVID-19 came calling, downtown Arlington was still very much in resurgent mode, searching for and triumphantly discovering its footing and paces, figuring out, business by business, block by block, what it wanted to be.
For a lengthy period, this pesky virus gained an upper hand on us flesh and bloods – it shut us down, stopped us in our tracks, made us rethink what we did, what we are doing now, what we hope to do tomorrow. Same with businesses, the cornerstone of a downtown’s existence. They, too, were sheltering in place, with no customers inside. Just sheltering.
Visible activity is a major component of vitality, and nothing kills a downtown quicker than stillness. Now that Arlington is slowly reopening, the pulse of its heartbeat is beginning again.
No one has watched this transformation more closely than Downtown Arlington Management Corporation’s President and CEO Maggie Campbell, who has over the past few years witnessed its brisk growth only to see this giant curveball come zooming in.
“Most of the businesses have reopened, so that’s a good thing,” Campbell says to me the other day. “We’re all trying to do the social distancing with tables. It’s a matter of time before they are able to get back to full capacity. But this is an important thing for people’s comfort level. How do they incorporate into their day-to-day business and budget costs? How do you staff appropriately? There are a lot of questions as we try to revive everything.”
It is, I suppose, the revitalization of the revitalization.
With the launch of Gov. Abbott’s Open Texas Phase II where restaurant dining areas could open to 50 percent occupancy with bars at 25 percent, Arlington went on the offensive. In early June, Downtown enticed customers with its Downtown Arlington Drive-In Restaurant Rally, where over a four-day span they asked patrons to patronize at least one Downtown Arlington business each day. Partial proceeds benefited Mission Arlington.
Participating Downtown restaurants and bars offered a variety of dine-in, carry out and curbside pick-up options, all with specials. They also expanded patio and outdoor seating. Campbell said it was a way for local residents to help support the local economy and specifically downtown. A few were new, recently opened businesses, so the rally was extra special for them to get up and going.
One of those newbies is Inclusion Coffee, Joshua Moore’s shop at 101 Center, which opened during restrictions, with chairs stacked up on tables. An assortment of handmade pies and pastries have generated rave reviews on Facebook and Instagram; for a business that strives on socialization, Inclusion Coffee is off to a good start despite the COVID handcuffs.
What has come out of the re-openings is how business districts are having to rethink public spaces and how to use them, particularly outdoors. It’s tough. Restaurants and other retail are trying to do the right thing by enforcing rules that keep everyone safe, yet their aim remains that you have a good time and return.
Encouraging signs include the return of Levitt Pavilion’s concert series, a new exhibit at the Arlington Museum of Art, and the Arlington Music Hall.
“I don’t think anyone is ready to give up. Not the business owners and not the patrons,” Campbell says. “While this has been devastating and brought the economy to a standstill, the underlining trend of fueling the economy in North Texas is still there. I am cautiously optimistic that at some point we will see a solution to this virus and get back a sense of normalcy.”