Like many small-business owners in Denver’s neighborhood shopping districts, Erika Righter tries to be a proactive member of her community. Her Broadway boutique in Baker, Hope Tank, is already evidence of that: Since she first opened the store in 2012 on Santa Fe Drive, her intent has always been to support local artists, and to give back even more by donating a portion of every sale to nonprofits chosen by the merchandise makers themselves. That was in the best of times.
In the present, when small shops are shuttered, losing profits, laying off employees and simply trying to cope, it’s another story. “My entire livelihood sits in that little store,” Righter laments. “I just ordered tons of stuff to help people weather this, and I feel a sense of extreme emergency. But no one’s contacting me, saying we’ll take it over, we’ve got funds.”
And she’s not alone. Up and down the strip, others are in the same boat, struggling to find ways to keep their businesses afloat in impossible times. “It’s surreal,” Righter says. “There are quite a few of us still trying to hold it down and be there, and a lot of smiling through closed doors. Some of us have been FaceTiming from closed shops. There’s a lot of solidarity in a shared painful experience. And the truth is, in our small strip, a lot of us are single parents, including single dads.”
Without people out strolling Broadway to shop and dine, there’s also a fearful feeling among business owners for their own safety, which gave Righter an idea of how to bring new life back to the neighborhood: Improve security by boarding up storefronts, but waylaying the sense of emptiness left behind by hiring local artists to paint bright murals over the raw wooden barriers. “A lot of people out of work would probably like to be out in the sunshine hammering some nails,” Righter notes.
Funding is the biggest obstacle. Business owners in crisis don’t have unlimited dollars, even enough to board up their windows. That’s expensive in itself, says Righter, especially for folks whose stores are hemorrhaging assets at a frantic rate.
She’d like to get some kind of public funding. “People are hearing words like 'bailout,' but the truth is, only a fraction of us will get any kind of assistance other than in the form of loans, and loans just mean more debt,” she explains. “There’s no forgiveness for commercial rents, even when we’re paying rent on empty spaces, and no one’s reaching out to offer solutions.”
Righter is still waiting for help. She’s also worried about how boarded-up storefronts on an empty street might look menacing to people driving by. “If we have to board up these stores, let's make it beautiful,” she suggests. “Do we want an apocalyptic version of Broadway or do want to honor the creativity and the heart of the neighborhood? We really like each other, really support each other.”
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Broadway’s not ready to become a ghost town, despite the limitations of enforced lockdown.
“This is a good reminder for people struggling to see beauty and positivity in the community and provide financial help to artists,” Righter says. “Now is the time. We could be doing this right now. I reached out to multiple people with the city — our local city council people have budgets that could be reappropriated differently." “I’m not asking them to pay for it,” she adds. “But maybe we could do a collaboration with Home Depot, or Lowe’s, or Ace Hardware, whose stores are individually owned. I would love to see the city leverage relationships toward places that could help us do this.”
So far, though, she’s on her own.
Righter isn't waiting for city support before she takes action. She's started a GoFundMe page and a Facebook community group dedicated to bringing a ray of sunshine to Baker, where things are looking bleak. If the city won’t chip in, maybe the people will.