These downtown Overland Park businesses have survived the pandemic so far — but challenges linger

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Downtown Overland Park could have looked vacant this summer.

When the global COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread shutdowns in March 2020, a handful of small businesses were at risk of staying permanently closed. But a loyal, supportive customer base paired with federal COVID-19 relief programs like the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan have kept those businesses afloat, some business owners say.

Now, with nearly half of Johnson County residents fully vaccinated and a countywide mask mandate lifted, downtown Overland Park is starting to see life again.

Those were some of the takeaways from a visit on Friday by U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids of the Third Congressional District, who came to four businesses in downtown Overland Park.

Davids stopped by popcorn shop Popculture; nonprofit retailer Ten Thousand Villages; pie bakery The Upper Crust; and The General Store + Co., to, as her office put it, get an idea of the challenges and circumstances local businesses are going through as they continue to try to weather and recover from the pandemic.

Here are some of the business’ stories:

The General Store + Co.

Mike Cole and John Lucas, co-owners of The General Store + Co., paid kudos to The Kansas Small Business Development Center at Johnson County Community College for helping them navigate the relief programs available to them.

Revenues have returned to somewhat pre-pandemic norms for The General Store + Co.

Co-founders Mike Cole and John Lucas, who received some federal relief, said they’re doing well, even after the “forced vacation” when they were closed for a couple of months.

“However, to be honest, had we not received the [federal] money, we probably would have been [permanently] shuttered,” Lucas said. “I don’t know if we could have reopened.”

Cole gave kudos to The Kansas Small Business Development Center operated by Johnson County Community College for being “instrumental in helping us navigate all the programs.”

The Upper Crust

Loyal customers, a helpful landlord and federal relief combined to keep The Upper Crust going during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, over at The Upper Crust, pie loving customers and a supportive landlord have kept the bakery going.

“We’ve been really, really lucky,” said Natalie Smith, an employee. “People have needed their pie. We just have a loyal customer base who really helped our cause, customers wanting to support us.”

Jan Knobel, co-owner of the bakery, also said federal relief, particularly the Payment Protection Program (PPP), was key to the bakery’s survival.

“Had we not, I’m not sure we’d be standing here today, because we were able to reopen, bring our staff back and pay our rent and utility bills,” Knobel said.

Ten Thousand Villages

Co-director Karen Blum-Greenwood (left) said a loyal customer base has kept their artisans and makers afloat.

Ten Thousand Villages, a nonprofit fair trade retailer, is back better than it was before the pandemic, said co-directors Karen Blum-Greenwood and Kendra Frink.

“That is wonderful news, but we are part of a global economy, a fair trade movement,” Blum-Greenwood added. “If our business is doing well, that’s only part of the cycle.”

The two said their customers’ support allowed them to pass that support on to the artisans and makers who supply the shop with their handmade goods.

“Our community is very generous and kind, and understands what we do and the impact that we have in the world,” Frink said.

Popculture

“People have adjusted to online shopping, and… it’s not going to revert to what it was,” said Melody Woo (left), co-owner of Popculture. The popcorn and ice cream shop’s revenues are half of what they were before the pandemic.

Justin Woo and Melody Woo, the husband-and-wife team who owns Popculture, said they had four months of “normal” when they bought the shop in November 2019.

The couple received relief in the second round of PPP funding, but while they have slowly recovered, in-store business is still at least half of what it was before COVID-19.

Melody said they’re still working on adjustments to operations during the “new normal.”

“I really just think it’s going to require some adaptation,” she said. “I think every business, no matter what it is, clothing store, food, everything in between, there is just less foot traffic. People have adjusted to online shopping, and… it’s not going to revert to what it was.”

The work isn’t done

“There are lots of really good things that came out of some of the programs that we passed, either in the CARES Act or the funding that we did with the American Rescue Plan, but that doesn’t mean that the work is done,” said Rep. Sharice Davids.

Central to Davids’ focus during Friday’s tour was to learn if and how the American Rescue Plan, which President Biden signed into law in March, has helped local businesses stay afloat, and to understand what work is still left to do in the recovery efforts.

After the tour, Davids met with business owners to talk through those challenges during a roundtable at ClockTower Plaza.

“When I think about the ways that Congress can be most helpful, a lot of that has to do with literally showing up and listening,” Davids said. “There are lots of really good things that came out of some of the programs that we passed, either in the CARES Act or the funding that we did with the American Rescue Plan, but that doesn’t mean that the work is done.”

Enacted by Congress earlier this year, the American Rescue Plan is a federal program designed to help small businesses by:

  • Expanding the Paycheck Protection Program, the original version of which Congress passed at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.
  • Establishing targeted relief programs, like the Restaurant Revitalization Fund and Shuttered Venue Operators Grant
  • Extending the paid leave credit for small businesses through 2021

As a member of the House Small Business Committee, Davids said she has pushed for oversight of relief programs and urged the Small Business Administration to increase funds available to restaurants and support venue owners who are still waiting for emergency funding.

Helping businesses that are still hurting

“There’s a lot of reasons why I think we need to be very focused on the relief that we offer so that it provides the maximum impact and gets everybody back to work and gets our businesses running at full-scale operations,” said Kevin Walker, senior vice president of public policy for the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce.

The generally hopeful tenor heard downtown last week is on par with what other business members have told the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce.

“I think we’re hearing from our members that there is optimism that wasn’t there a year ago,” said Kevin Walker, senior vice president of public policy for the chamber. “We’re starting to see the economy come back to life.

“Unemployment numbers are falling dramatically over what we had at the height of the pandemic. So there’s a lot of encouraging signs out there. But that’s not to say there aren’t still businesses that are hurting.”

Co-directors Karen Blum-Greenwood (center) and Kendra Frink (right) tell Rep. Davids about some of the fair trade merchants around the world who supply their store.

Walker said he sees “a lot of merit” in the American Rescue Plan and past federal relief plans that have allowed communities to be somewhat flexible in how they spend the funds.

He suggested that federal funding allocated to local businesses could go to a variety of areas, such as relief for childcare, transportation or cash flow challenges.

After identifying the greatest areas of needs, the chamber, state and local officials should then work with policymakers to come up with solutions, particularly for business sectors that continue to struggle, such as restaurants and hotels in the hospitality sector.

“When you get down to the end of it, these are people’s livelihoods at stake,” Walker said. “We have to get them back on their feet. That, in turn, provides jobs for the community, which is good for those that are still looking for jobs.

“So there’s a lot of reasons why I think we need to be very focused on the relief that we offer so that it provides the maximum impact and gets everybody back to work and gets our businesses running at full-scale operations.”

Unemployment hovers at 3.5% in Kansas, according to May 2021 data from the Kansas Department of Labor.

Walker said that’s on par with pre-pandemic levels, but some small businesses are still struggling to find enough workers.

Walker said many factors are at play contributing to ongoing unemployment, including workers’ health concerns as the new Delta variant continues leading to a spike in new COVID-19 cases across the country.

But the bottom line, Walker said, is regular communication with businesses is key to identifying issues and working with policymakers to come up with solutions.

“When all of our businesses are flourishing, and all of our people that are looking for work are working, that benefits everybody, that benefits the community and, ultimately, that’s what we want to see,” Walker added.

Businesses still in recovery mode can check out this grant application for the Overland Park Small Business Economic Recovery Program on July 12.

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