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‘Saving Main Street’

Public Finance Fellow takes a lead role in Salem pandemic recovery effort.

Sheila Manzana remembers the text as vividly as if she were looking at it today.

It was Sunday, June 6, 2020. It had been nearly three months since Sheila and husband Giorgio Manzana had been forced by COVID-19 mandates to shut down indoor dining at Bella Verona Italian restaurant, an intimate, 25-year-old, tin-ceilinged Essex Street institution in Salem, Mass.

Outdoor dining was scheduled to open the following day, and Sheila had made clear to a representative of a Salem recovery task force – Rappaport Public Finance Fellow Alex Khoury – that her restaurant’s readiness for its first foray into an open-air experience would likely make or break it for the long term. In the Manzana’s case, there was precious little space on the restaurant’s adjacent sidewalk, meaning some form of intervention from the city would be critical.

So when she saw a text from the Mayor’s office with roughly 24 hours until go time, Sheila opened it quickly.

“We want to give you the whole street,” she remembers reading.

She woke her husband from an afternoon nap and read him the text.

“You must not be reading that right,” Giorgio said.

“Well,” she said. “I think I am.”

She was. Members of the Salem Department of Public Works soon arrived on Essex Street to partition off the space. And following a mad dash of shopping for as many tables and chairs as Sheila could get her hands on to fill what would now be – thankfully – an 800-square-foot space, Bella Verona opened at 4 p.m. on Monday afternoon with 45 patrons in 45 seats.

The scene was emblematic of a hands-on, personalized response to the Salem small business community that buoyed the city through the critical summer months. Khoury, a Rappaport Fellow who had recently earned a master’s degree from the Harvard Kennedy School, was part of what Mayor Kim Driscoll called her “Dream Team,” a subgroup of Salem’s Economic Development Recovery and Revitalization Task Force.

It’s mission: to diagnose needs and offer a soft landing to local businesses struggling through the pandemic.

“We called it, Saving Main Street,” Driscoll said. “There is no actual street in Salem called Main Street, but the idea was the central business core. The idea was, can we keep businesses alive?”

Khoury played a substantial role. In addition to developing the questionnaire that would be distributed to more than 50 small businesses, he conducted a handful of the interviews, aggregated the business responses, diagnosed trends, presented findings to the full group, and helped create the three-phase intervention plan that Salem used to move forward.

The eclectic range of businesses in the city made for a process that took more than a simple, one-size-fits-all approach.

“It’s a historic, funky place,” Driscoll said. “The kooky comic bookstore around the corner from the high-end restaurant is what makes Salem special, and if we were to lose pieces of that, we really felt like that would impact us in a way that, going forward, could forever be lost.”

Driscoll, Khoury and the recovery crew knew that some business owners would be able to easily assess their pandemic needs, while others might need extra help just figuring out what needed to be figured out.

“Some of them were just reeling, trying to keep their business afloat while also trying to understand what their needs were,” Driscoll said. “So those focus groups that Alex participated in really said, “Okay, what are we trying to discern? What are the key questions?”

Once they had the questions, they got the answers – through both survey results and conversations between the team and business owners – and after several weeks of diagnostics, the plan took shape. Ultimately, the timing of the group’s work proved serendipitous in a city that relies heavily on summer success through high tourist volume.

“We called it, Saving Main Street,” Driscoll said. “There is no actual street in Salem called Main Street, but the idea was the central business core. The idea was, can we keep businesses alive?”

Salem Mayor, Kim Driscoll

“There were a lot of people we’d see driving up, mostly from Connecticut and New York, and they couldn’t believe Salem,” Sheila Manzana said. “They’d tell us that in their hometowns, everything was locked down, they hadn’t been given this kind of space. We kept hearing about how nice it is here, and they were right. It was really a great vibe.”

Driscoll had offered the challenge: Can we keep businesses alive? And the answer, with a sizable assist from Khoury and the task force, turned out to be a resounding yes.

Inevitably, fall and winter came calling, COVID numbers jumped again, tourism waned, and businesses trended indoors again, leading to a correlating drop in sales all around, including Bella Verona, which went back to takeout and limited indoor dining. But Sheila Manzana, like others in her shoes, considers it a success story.

“Fortunately, we did really well in the summertime, and that is sustaining us now,” she said.

Asked how it might have played out for her restaurant and her family of employees had there been no intervention from Khoury and the Dream Team, Sheila didn’t hesitate.

“Where would we be without it?” she repeated. “Closed. We’d all be closed.”