AUBURN, Ala. (WRBL) – As the COVID-19 virus spreads across Alabama, it’s infecting businesses’ bottom lines. The state’s unemployment rate stood at 12.9 percent in April, unheard of since the Great Depression. With the virus undoing years of robust economic growth in a matter of weeks, lockdown restrictions are lifting.
In Auburn, business owners are thankful for community support as they invent new opportunities while counting on Auburn football to save the year. Most of all, they are grateful the illness hasn’t caused a significant loss of life in the Auburn community; their prayers remain with family’s who have been impacted by the virus.
Dimensions has been a part of downtown Auburn’s landscape for 36 years. For salon owner Stephen Prestridge, the studio has been his home away from home for 24 years, until COVID-19 shut the doors for 50 days.
“We have never experienced anything like this in my lifetime. I didn’t receive any stimulus for the salon; I don’t know why I applied for everything. Financially it was devastating for us,” shared Prestridge.
The City of Auburn helped Prestridge secure a local bank loan, while the Chamber of Commerce helped downtown merchants perfect their re-opening under the new safety guidelines.
“People came back in and said I have missed this more than anything. I think what this Coronavirus did is it not only made more people appreciate a haircut; it made more people appreciate this industry,” shared Prestridge.
Prestridge’s first concern remains the safety of his staff, clients, and their families.
“Some of our clients are terrified they are terrified, and we have tried everything we can to make them as comfortable as possible and of them to feel as safe as possible, and most of our elderly clients have chosen to wait,” he said.
Auburn Mayor Ron Anders is proud of how Auburn came together and shut down for several weeks to slow the spread and allow local hospitals to prepare for the virus. He says the community washed their hands, maintained social distance, and ensured the most at risk were protected.
“There have been major sacrifices by our city, all for the greater good and hope for the future. Auburn people dig in. When times are tough, they are tougher. We have seen that with people as they have re-imagined who they are and what their businesses stand for,” shared Anders.
Celebrity Chef and restaurateur David Bancroft and his team are a prime example of that innovation. As a community, many local restaurants in Auburn and Opelika agreed to shut down ahead of Governor Kay Ivey’s order. Acre – Bancroft’s flagship restaurant furloughed 65 employees. His newer restaurant, Bow and Arrow, lost 30 workers.
“It happened so fast, and we could not even say goodbye to half of our employees. It was heartbreaking,” said Bancroft.
Acre has since re-opened. However, Bow and Arrow’s counter service concept couldn’t work under Covid-19 safety restrictions.
“The first month I spent on my hands and knees in prayer. The second month in construction,” shared Bancroft.
Bow and Arrow is undergoing a renovation, transforming into a full-service restaurant. The change in service means 25 new jobs have been created along with a unique dining experience for families at the end of June. Bancroft can’t wait to serve the community who rallied behind his two restaurants.
“If we had not gone through this opportunity of closure, we would not have seen this vision. We would not have been blessed to see what else we could accomplish. This is a ‘go big or go home’ moment,” shard Bancroft.
Mayor Anders declined to name a handful of businesses that were not able to survive the pandemic and closed for good. He’s hoping the economy can recover, and those business owners will find a second chance.
“So many of our small town business owners are heroes. They take a lot of risks, and they fought to keep their nose above water during the pandemic. Now I hope they have great success as we move forward into the future,” shared Mayor Anders.
Mayor Anders says what Auburn’s businesses need most is a future that includes Auburn University football and students returning in full force in the fall.
“We need the spending power they bring with them, and that includes football fans. You can’t replace 80,000 people seven times a year. So right now, we are prayerful and patiently waiting to see if we will see 30,000 students start in August and see 80,000 football fans in September,” shared Anders.
AU Athletics and the SEC officials say they remain focused on preparing to play the 2020 season as scheduled, saying future decisions will be based on the guidance of health care professionals.
Time will tell what Auburn will look like come this fall. For now, businesses are taking it one haircut and one dining service at a time.
Much has been lost, but in a way, much has been gained.
“It’s nice to know I can do this, and I can do it again. I know what to do now; we all do. We can survive eight weeks out of work,” shared Prestridge.
The Auburn spirit is never afraid.