Louisiana 'main streets' suffering an economic hit due to coronavirus

Michael Tortorich
Main Street communities like Donaldsonville and Plaquemine rely on the economic activity of small businesses, which have suffered throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo by Michael Tortorich

Nearly a third of small businesses in Louisiana are at risk of closing permanently over the next two months, and almost 60 percent cut shutter over a five-month span, according to a survey published by Main Street America. 

Nationally, nearly 66 percent of small businesses could close in five months as more than 72 percent of employees could face unemployment, the release reported. 

Main Street America, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, reported the findings last week. The survey assessed the impact of the pandemic of nearly 6,000 small businesses. About 91 percent of the businesses have a staff of fewer than 20 employees.

Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser said small business owners and employees are "the life blood" of the state's Main Street communities.

"Small business owners can only cut so much before the losses in revenue start drastically impacting their ability to remain open and serve the people of Louisiana," he said.

Several Main Street communities are scattered throughout the state. Those in the greater Baton Rouge area include Donaldsonville, Plaquemine, New Roads, St. Francisville, and Denham Springs.

Lee Melancon, Director of Community and Economic Development and Main Street Manager for the City of Donaldsonville, said the district has suffered “deep economic losses.”

Our businesses are resilient. They are doing everything they can to adjust their selling tactics by offering curbside pickup, contactless delivery of items, and offering special appointments for those who are most at risk of contracting the virus,” Melancon said.

Our businesses are taking every precaution possible to protect their customers and staff during this crisis, but this comes at a huge price to our small community shops. While there are opportunities to help sustain our businesses, most of them are only offered to firms with more than three employees and the programs set into place by Congress are beneficial, but simply may not be enough to sustain or save some of our businesses,” he added.

Melancon acknowledged some businesses may close permanently due to the pandemic. 

We are planning a webinar and training classes partnering with Ascension Economic Development as well as MBECA (Microbusiness Enterprise Corporation of Ascension) to assist our small businesses during the rebuilding process, and we will be here as long as it takes to get our community through this challenge,” he said.

Donna Jennings, Main Street Director for Denham Springs, said some shops in the district are unable to pay rent. Business owners have been encouraging online ordering and curbside deliveries to fill in the gaps in their income.

"They have no idea when the virus will slow down enough to reopen," Jennings said. "Our village is like a family. We need hope and help."

Anne Picou, Director of Houma Main Street, said their district is "at ground zero."

"We had 13 restaurants in the Houma District. Today only three are open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for curb side and one will deliver. Our retail is all closed," Picou said.

Traffic has been sparse in the area. Picou said many business owners were feeling the effects of a fluctuation in the oil and gas sector of the economy prior to the coronavirus crisis.

Thibodaux Main Street Director Danielle Stein said local business owners have increased their social media presence as a way to connect with customers. One business owner has used the additional time to work on renovations and updating systems, according to Stein.

According to a report released last week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Louisiana went into the pandemic with the highest unemployment rate in the nation. The March rate was 6.9 percent.

Louisiana also had the biggest increase in unemployment numbers of any other state.

Findings from business respondents to the survey show:

  1. 70.9 percent are locally owned
  2. 46.2 percent have been in business more than 10 years
  3. 81 percent have suspended storefront operations
  4. 62 percent do not have an online sales component to produce a revenue stream
  5. 69.2 percent report a loss in revenue of more than 50 percent
  6. 61.5 percent report a loss in revenue of more than 75 percent
  7. 49.6 percent are concerned with how they will pay this month’s rent/mortgage
  8. 30.8 percent are at risk of closing within three months
  9. 59 percent are at risk of closing within five months