By Francesca Sacco

With local businesses looking for support, resources and information to navigate the pandemic, the Washington Business District Authority has focused on becoming a driving force for success.

“We really dug in and did some behind the scenes work on how we can maximize our impact and best support our existing businesses,” Sarah Collier, WBDA’s main street manager, said. “We threw ourselves into being the best support system we can be.”

Before businesses had the chance to ask for help, Collier said the WBDA made every effort to connect and inform.

“We didn’t give them the chance to come to us,” she said. “We’ve offered a lot communication, especially in the beginning. We let them know that we were here and that we can help.”

The WBDA’s mission is to support and grow local businesses, host impactful events, enhance the city’s spaces and physical assets and engage the community in making Downtown Washington a better place for everyone to work in and enjoy. It regularly provides resources like workshops, grants and access to and support from regional agencies like the Small Business Administration.

To offer additional assistance, the WBDA has been working with their partners at The University of Pittsburgh’s Small Business Development Center and Chatham University’s Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship to produce a new series of small business-specific workshops, which will start in March. They’ve also brought on new partners, like PowerLink, to provide technical support.

Collier said they also welcomed Steve Olsavsky, the senior vice president of Commercial Real Estate at Huntington National Bank, to the Citywide Development Corporation board.

“Huntington has already been a terrific partner for downtown. They were so helpful during the first round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans,” she said. “They are continuing that support by underwriting programming specifically for our business owners.”

The goal is to make sure local businesses have access to essential and valuable resources.

“We’re really trying to make sure that businesses have what they need to not only survive, but thrive,” Ramon Foster, WBDA’s business development and retention specialist, said.

While pandemic-related restrictions made daily operations difficult, Collier said Washington businesses have remained resilient. Many companies have transitioned to or incorporated an online presence. Others, like Heritage Craft Butchers, have opened new storefronts or expanded like the Washington Brewing Company.

“Very few businesses closed, but I think that is a testament to our business community,” she said. “I’ve been humbled time and time again by their resiliency, the collaboration and the grit that they’ve demonstrated. They really banded together and found new ways to do things.”

Collier said many businesses faced hardships this year, but determination proved vital in seeing them through.

“They rode the waves for the most part,” she said. “We are also so incredibly grateful to the community as a whole because it’s truly the people who make the place. To everyone who has made it a point to shop local, eat local and hire local services, thank you. You have helped get our community through and put us in a place where we are excited to look ahead and put out new way to be a part of what is happening downtown.”

WBDA plans to continue its facade improvement grant program again this year. For the last three years, WBDA has put $300,000 towards 41 projects.

“That totals $825,000 worth of investment along the downtown corridor,” Collier said. “We are hoping to push that over $1 million with the next round, which will open up in the spring.”

Collier and Foster remain hopeful that they can reintroduce entertainment and events downtown as early as late spring or early summer.

“We’re hoping for the best and planning for the worst,” Collier said. “We look forward to inviting people back downtown.”

Foster said they’ve got a spring Small Business Saturday in the works for April and winter editions of the Farmer’s Market scheduled for Saturdays in February and March. He’s also working to identify and recruit new restaurants and retailers to the area.

“Last year reminded me how many great offerings our town has,” Collier said.

And they’re hoping to add more. Collier said they plan to unveil new events if they are able. They also plan to reveal new ways for businesses and the community to connect with everything downtown.

“We’re trying to make it easier for people to champion the local businesses, the local growers and the local community,” Collier said. “We want to offer more ways to celebrate, more ways to connect and more ways to be a part of what’s happening.”

For more information about the WBDA and the resources they offer, visit downtownwashingtonpa.com.

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