Amid new challenges and change, The District prepares for a new way of doing things.
Like many of us, the massive disruption of the past few months has inspired change in Columbia’s downtown community improvement district, more commonly known as The District.
This summer, The District has worked through different obstacles and tasks each day. “Every day is different,” Nickie Davis, executive director of The District, says. “As always, we are just trying to continue to lobby for our businesses, keep downtown Columbia safe and clean, and also market for the businesses downtown.”
Representing over 600 downtown businesses, The District works to keep downtown Columbia running smoothly. By existing as a main point of connection between the City of Columbia and downtown, The District has been incredibly busy amid COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests. “These past few months, we’ve constantly been going to the city on anything we see our businesses need,” says Nickie.
Living Alongside Uncertainty
For the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, The District has been constantly working to get the correct information out to the downtown businesses. “We want to continually squash rumors and misinformation and get the appropriate information to our businesses as quickly as we can,” Nickie shares. With false information available from unreliable sources, getting the correct information during a constant wave of uncertainty has been harder than usual. So during the pandemic, The District team has worked to find the correct information and go to bat for downtown businesses as much as they could.
Over the past few months, The District has also hosted virtual events, completely stopped handing out information physically, and has been consistently doing live Q&As with downtown businesses each week — all while working to update lists for businesses and retailers highlighting grants, loans, and any information on COVID-19 as quickly as possible. “We are trying to keep people up to date so they know when they can go shop, when they can’t go shop, and so on,” Nickie says. The District is fighting for both Columbia locals and the local businesses we all know and love.
Downtown cleanliness has, obviously, been among The District’s top priorities. Block by Block, the downtown cleaning service, has been utilized more in recent months. “Block by Block has been a huge asset throughout this entire pandemic,” Nickie says. “They have always cleaned for us, but they switched the amount, where they’re cleaning, how often they’re cleaning — and they have been behind the scenes making sure downtown is as clean as it possibly can be.” People don’t normally think about the cleanliness of the lids on the trashcans, the crosswalk buttons, and the meters, but now, Block by Block cleans these aspects of downtown constantly.”
Nickie continues: “People see Block by Block doing their work, but they don’t understand how much good they’re doing for us. We are very thankful to have them.”
In conjunction with the disruption of COVID-19, downtowns across the country have hosted Black Lives Matter protests, including here in Columbia. The District team was constantly engaging the protests by getting information out to local businesses, protesters, and police officers. It has been a connection point between downtown businesses and protesters — with many businesses wanting to coordinate and help protesters in any way they can.
“We have businesses wanting to support the protests,” Nickie says. “For example, The Tiger Hotel has offered to put porta-potties downtown, so we’re trying to facilitate with the city to make sure that can happen.” Among uncertainty and disruption, The District is functioning to connect, inform, and bring stability to businesses and community members.
Envisioning a New Normal
During a heavy season for events — Restaurant Week, Drinks in The District, Dog Days, and protests — The District has creatively discovered new ways of putting on community events throughout the pandemic. “We are constantly trying to make our events successful while also following safety guidelines,” Nickie says.
During this crisis, different ways of doing business have been implemented. “Curbside pick-up was about the only way our businesses could do business for a month or so,” recalls Nickie. With much disarray, everyone had to get creative — including the downtown businesses. “This has all really helped us find new ways of doing things we’ve been doing for years,” she says.
With 600 businesses and a large population, there will always be communication challenges. But, maybe surprisingly, the internet has expanded the possibilities for Columbia businesses and made communication easier than before the pandemic hit.
“Communication has always been an issue for our businesses, and it will always be,” Nickie says. “But, having Zoom meetings with the local businesses has helped us continue to speak with our business owners — though we can’t see them. It’s easy, it’s accessible, and that’s what we want in this day and age. I don’t see any of that going away anytime soon.”
Not only did the businesses have to change the way they communicate and function, but The District also had to adjust. “Everything we had planned, luckily, we have been reimagining,” Nickie says. “We haven’t had to push anything back at this point. We have constantly been reimagining how we can help our businesses continue and our events continue.” Seeing as many events can be done virtually, The District has put on most of its events online, reaching a whole different and new audience. “It’s exciting to see that we now have an extra way of being a community and coming together,” Nickie explains.
No matter what’s happening, The District will continue to keep everyone up-to-date on what’s going on in downtown Columbia — whether that be the parking situation, how to know what’s open, curbside pickup, or Black Lives Matter protests. In the meantime, along with many of us, The District is trying to calculate how to do events safely while continuing to support local businesses. “Otherwise,” Nickie says, “We’re just trying to get through it.”