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The latest efforts to revitalize Main Street in Princeton started back in 2006. Business owners and organizers there say it’s been slow, sometimes frustrating work to build the local economy alongside the community. A new, healthier status quo seemed to be taking root when the global pandemic shut everything down. But the community refused to let that be the end of the story.
Lori McKinney is the founder and CEO of the Riff Raff Arts Collective, one of those businesses on Mercer Street. She’s also a driving force in community development. Reporter Jessica Lilly checked in with McKinney to see how the businesses are faring through the pandemic.
Lori McKinney: Certainly it has been a challenging year for us. The main thing that I have seen of the businesses is innovation and creativity. And it’s been striking to see how people have pivoted and, you know, created new products and new services. And it’s also been striking to see the amount of support that has come from the community and just a true outpouring, I think some of the best memories I have are of people lining up on the sidewalk to get Growlers filled with a sophisticated hound. And people just loading up their cars with creative take-home kits from Hammer and Stain, and also from the pottery shop Artistic Adventures. And of course, the Blue Ridge Bee Company was an essential grocer. So even when the quarantine was just hitting, they were still able to have their doors, you know, open from the front. So they had curbside service right from the get go. They report just doing huge volume of business during the quarantine. And I think that that was actually a turning point for the acceleration of the Mercer Street development. Because people, once they were threatened with having the downtown businesses disappear, then all of a sudden, it was like, wow, our downtown was amazing. We’ve got to support these downtown businesses, so we don’t lose them. So I think when in the big picture, maybe 10 years from now, when we look back on this will recognize that as a moment of acceleration.
Jessica Lilly: How does that make you feel? Having this vision all these years sometimes probably feeling like and wondering, is this in vain? Do the people here really want this? And then COVID hits and they come running? And saying yes, yes, we do want this.
Lori McKinney: It’s, you know, I have a mixed bag of emotions around all of that. We shut our doors pretty early, and the other businesses were still, you know, kind of going along, and hadn’t realized how serious it was. And there were people just like swarming on the street. And I remember thinking to myself, I spent a decade and a half trying to get people to come into this downtown and now here they are. I wanted to stick my head out the window and scream, go home, go home, it’s not safe, go home. And then I remember watching the barista from the coffee shop pull the chain on the open sign, and the Blue Ridge Bee Company bring in their sandwich board. I just got chill bumps saying that out loud because in my mind, I thought that that was the last time and I thought all of the building and all of the heart and soul that these people put into these businesses and this could be, you know, the last moment for them.
Jessica Lilly: Then you saw people lining up with growlers and it all turned around.
Lori McKinney: It was amazing. And I do remember moments on the street looking around with my mask on and everybody, you know, being socially distant and saying, of course, all this in this new era where we’re businesses going forward but it’s in this kind of weird in-between moment. And just thinking of myself, it is amazing to me that this is actually happening because I thought it was all over. I thought everything was just stopping.
Jessica Lilly: So you all do a lot of community engagement things. How did you pivot to stay relevant and still have those?
Lori McKinney: So we had been preparing to do live broadcasts from each of our events for years. That was always the plan and to do kind of television and radio shows from our live concert events. And so we have this technical infrastructure, and also just this vision. When the pandemic hit, we just had a unique opportunity to pivot into digital content. So we created broadcasts for each one of our events. And the early events had interactive Zoom calls as panel discussions as part of the live stream. But we ended up settling into a pre-recorded broadcast model that streams live. So the event happens live at the time that would happen, and it has a live feel to it but it’s actually all pre-recorded content.
Jessica Lilly: And did it cross your mind, (to think) all that work, all if that work we’ve done and now COVID is going to hit and swipe it all away?
Lori McKinney: I think definitely in the moment. I thought it felt to me like the whole world was crumbling down around us. I honestly, I did think that okay, this is where it stops, shall we? We built all this up this far. And this is just kind of the end of the road. And I just in my mind, knowing what I knew at the time, I just didn’t know how businesses could survive through, you know, an indefinite shutdown. Without the community, it would have all gone away. Oh, absolutely. If the community hadn’t poured out their support the way they did for these businesses, they wouldn’t have survived. And of course, there were, you know, resources that became available, the state CARES Act grant was helpful. Some people were able to seek access grants like through Liske. And, of course, the PPP was something that came into play for a lot of the businesses but that community support was vital. The thing that was fueling the momentum for the downtown to build was our ability to gather and to really get to know each other and experience and talk as a community about our visions for the future. And so I’m really looking forward to being able to gather people together again. And it definitely feels that there’s a hunger and an appreciation for that. I know myself, I didn’t realize we were all running around having the time of our lives, like being able to look at pictures, and it’s like, oh my gosh, we were looking at all of us together and how much fun we were having. And there’s just a new appreciation for all of it. I love to hang on to that. Thought that after the black plague came the Renaissance period, and it really does feel like there’s gonna be a new appreciation for community and for creativity. And it feels like a really innovative period is upon us.