Within days of Gov. Jared Polis issuing an order halting indoor dining for bars and restaurants on March 16, 2020, the City of Englewood had a plan to save its local businesses. Within 10 days of that order, and days before Polis’ stay-at-home order was announced, money was already out the door.
“We were probably one of the earliest, if not the first, communities to put checks in businesses’ hands,” said Darren Hollingsworth, economic development manager for the City of Englewood.
Now the city has received statewide recognition for its efforts to save local businesses during the initial wave of COVID-19, winning the 2022 Governor’s Award for Downton Excellence in the category of Best Pandemic Response for Business and Community.
“This pandemic has been a watershed moment for many communities, and we are honored and humbled to be recognized,” Hollingsworth said.
Presented by Downtown Colorado Inc., the Governor’s Award recognizes “outstanding projects and people in Colorado that demonstrate creativity in the face of challenges, unlikely and enduring partnerships and dedication to community to further downtown initiatives,” according to its website.
Hollingsworth said Englewood’s council acted fast to mitigate the economic fallout of the pandemic, authorizing $200,000 in city funds for a new grant program for local businesses with a staff of 25 or fewer. About 95% of Englewood’s businesses are 50 people or fewer, according to Hollingsworth.
This came as the city itself weathered budgetary challenges and before it had received any federal aid money. But moving quickly to rescue businesses was a priority for the city’s council and staff, Hollingsworth said.
“Making a very rapid, impactful pivot … we thought was critical,” he said.
The payoff proved worthwhile. As the city continues to emerge from the worst of the pandemic, Hollingsworth said nearly all Englewood’s local businesses survived, a major feat during a time when storefronts across the state, and the country, were forced to shutter for good.
When federal pandemic relief aid through the CARES Act began to flow to governments later in the spring of 2020, Hollingsworth said the city was able to continue its grant program for months. To date, the city has issued $1.1 million in grants, with 530 grants given.
For DaVarryl Williamson, owner of TOS Boxing Gym in Englewood, the money allowed his business “to survive.”
“I couldn’t be more proud or happier that we’re still in business,” Williamson said, adding that the pandemic showed how uncertain life can be.
“Everything you’ve worked for and saved for … and it still can crash down,” he said.
Through several different grants, Williamson received over $6,000, which he said he used to pay the mortgage for his space, located on South Kalamath Street. While business is still not at pre-pandemic levels, customers are returning and every week is an improvement, Williamson said.
Williamson said he felt grateful to own a business in a city that showed its support.
“It’s just nice to know someone cares,” he said. “The City of Englewood has my back.”
Along with grant money, the city was also an early adopter of allowing to-go cocktails for restaurants and bars in some city areas as well as loosening restrictions on outdoor dining, all of which proved to be a lifeline for businesses.
“It was crucial; it was the biggest lifeline we could have received,” said Erika Zierke, owner of the popular Broadway bar Englewood Grand.
Zierke said had it not been for the expansion of outdoor dining, her capacity would have been cut in half. And with fire pits and open flame heaters allowed for outdoor dining for the first time, Zierke said her business was able to survive the colder months.
“We had to get through an entire winter with extremely limited indoor capacity,” she said, adding that the city’s efforts were tangible. “No business on our block closed because of COVID.”
Hilarie Portell, executive director of the Englewood Downtown District Authority, said the city was “ahead of the curve every step of the way.”
The DDA, tasked with marketing the downtown area to draw in tourism, officially formed following approval from voters in the November 2020 election. For Portell, its creation is also a testament to the business community’s resilience during the pandemic.
And in the November 2021 election, voters approved raising the DDA’ s debt limit to $70 million to pay for vital downtown improvements.
“I really credit the downtown voters … having been through all that they’ve been through with closures and residents having to stay at home, they saw that voting in favor of creating a Downtown District Authority was another economic recovery strategy,” Portell said.
“I think Englewood, for a small community with limited resources, leveraged everything it had,” she said.