A two-year-long federal grant funded through the city meant to assist small businesses with maneuvering through the Covid pandemic ended in August, but not before San Jose Downtown Association’s Business Resiliency Team met and helped hundreds of San Jose business owners to stay open.
SJDA’s team, led by Business Development Manager Nate LeBlanc, included business resiliency managers Omar Torres for the first 16 months and Brenda Zendejas for the final eight months. Together, they logged more than 1,900 business visits not only downtown, but also along the Alum Rock and Monterey Road corridors.
“We’re very proud of what we did,” LeBlanc said. “Coming out of the Covid pandemic, there was a real sense of hopelessness in the small business community. As the realities of people’s day-to-day lives changed so much, so fast, there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty, especially with regards to foot traffic and how that would affect sales for businesses with already-slim margins.
“This grant gave us the opportunity to take the time necessary to check in with people on a deeper level than just helping with permits, it allowed us to engage with them and listen to them, and try to help with a wider range of issues.”
The team’s monthly reports show LeBlanc focusing on myriad downtown business development functions including assistance with storefront and rent-relief grants, permits, parklets, retention issues, and assistance opening new businesses.
“Here in downtown, I think there was an increase in the depth of our connection with the community,” LeBlanc said. “We got to know our membership in a new way, as well as continuing to provide the same space location, permit assistance, and advocacy that we have consistently delivered for many years.”
Torres made progress assisting the Monterey Road area property owners with business issues, but much of the focus on outreach centered more on public safety than business development, LeBlanc said.
Torres and Zendejas made a much greater impact assisting the Alum Rock Santa Clara Business Association (ARSCBA), LeBlanc noted.
“Brenda in particular spent a lot of time there and helped a few businesses open, some to stay open, and organized cleanups and mural projects that helped the perception of the area,” he said.
The team helped multiple businesses with their ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance training; avoid citations, fines and additional fees; and provided social media guidance. They also educated businesses about Groundwerx cleaning services, safety escorts and app for reporting messes.
At times, their assistance proved more supportive and resilience-oriented than tactical, Zendejas said.
“Many businesses outside downtown had never received assistance from anyone, and I was their everything,” she said. “To establish and build relationships, I’d get my hair or nails done and sometimes eat with them. I’d provide a lot of emotional support.”
In their line of work, each business that closed was tough on the team, as if they didn’t reach them soon enough or that they missed an opportunity.
As part of their reporting to the City of San Jose, which had oversight of the federal Economic Development Association (EDA) grant, the team prepared short narratives of success stories including Angelou’s, The Loft Bar and Bistro and Bijan Bakery.