By Kathy Chouteau
Vivian Wong was only a few months on the job as executive director of the Richmond Main Street Initiative (RMSI) when Bay Area public health officers implemented the shelter-in-place order. The economic development organization tasked with revitalizing downtown, in part through festivals and gatherings, found itself in triage mode to support the corridor’s businesses.
Like many similar organizations, RMSI focused on gathering survival tools for downtown businesses, creating an online “COVID-19 Community Resources” page and obtaining and using grant funding to help businesses adapt to remote sales, among other economic tools and strategies needed to weather the storm.
But what happens once the storm clears? Richmond’s downtown may face an uphill climb, but there is a silver lining in that the catastrophe is helping Wong and the RMSI team emerge from a difficult situation with a refined vision for the future.
“We have all the ingredients for revitalization to happen in a way that will be the Renaissance 2.0,” Wong said.
Wong is already advancing a vision that goes beyond the recovery. What kind of retail is desired on Richmond’s once vibrant Macdonald Avenue, which decades ago teemed with economic activity before, as many have claimed, Hilltop Mall showed up to steal away businesses and foot traffic? With the rise of online shopping and the erosion of the traditional mall format, what kind of retail could return vibrancy to Macdonald Avenue?
Wong is not waiting for the storm to settle to find out. RMSI aims to focus on enhanced data collection to get answers. “You want to go to the community and say, these are things that exist and these are things that don’t exist. Which kinds of retail would you like us to attract?,” she said.
Among Wong’s highest priorities? Creating a Downtown Merchants Association to empower local businesses “with data and tools and best practices so they can make the type of decisions that will benefit them.”
The new executive director also has her eyes set on public safety on the corridor. She wants to partner with the Richmond Police Department to create a Business Watch—like a Neighborhood Watch Group for businesses—as well as a branding strategy for downtown Richmond.
“That’s something I want downtown Richmond to have—a brand that people can rally around,” said Wong. “Rebranding downtown and creating that website and all the collateral that comes with it so that people have a really strong draw to shop in our downtown.”
The pandemic has been a monumental disruption. Wong is viewing it as an opportunity to create her own disruption that will usher in a stronger downtown.
“In general, a lot of Fortune 500 companies start during recessions or Bear Markets, so this is a golden opportunity for entrepreneurs to really invest in our downtown in a way that really reflects our cultural diversity, our art, our food scene—it’s just an amazing opportunity.”
RMSI is also looking out for downtown’s sustainability should there be future economic turmoil. The organization is seeking grant funding to create an Economic Disaster Resilience Plan—the brainchild of RMSI’s Alicia Gallo. By partnering with other like-minded business development entities, RMSI would create a primer for small businesses to help provide guidance.
Overall, Wong emphasized that RMSI’s initiatives pay great dividends for downtown.
“The little investment that you make, you get so much ROI,” said Wong. “People like us, we’re boots on the ground, we’re the ones who are directly servicing small businesses. I’ve been hearing that some people want to cut the economic development work and I strongly encourage cities to not do that…we’re the ones who are going to be the people who will be triaging and attracting, retaining and expanding the businesses on the ground.”
Learn more about RMSI here.