SWM Regional Chamber and Others Pitch SJ on Downtown Business Support Plans

Working diligently to keep his small business enterprise members viable in a highly stressful time of pandemic, Southwest Michigan Regional Chamber President Arthur Havlicek continues to pull out all the stops to help those businesses survive.

With many of them still under state-mandated shutdowns, disallowing in-person experiences, Havlicek and chamber member Mark Rutherford from CrazeVR and several others in the business community have approached the city of St. Joseph with creative ways to overcome the hurdles created by the shelter-in-place orders from the governor.

Havlicek and Rutherford were slated to appear this morning before a special meeting of the St. Joseph Downtown Development Authority to present plans for creation of a “virtual downtown” to serve “as a cohesive Internet front end” to the city’s central business district downtown.

According to the plan, which will also go before the St. Joseph City Commission tonight, visitors would see the downtown region just as it is, with information from each business including contact information, hours of operation, and a direct link to any Internet presence that the business has, readily available at click from within the virtual tour program.

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Havlicek sees the opportunity as a package that could help local communities improve their web presence and improve shopping and dining access to local businesses. CrazeVR has designed a packet for presentation to the City Commission, but City Manager John Hodgson says that if the plan is pursued, “The agreement for services would be between the City and the Chamber, which would subcontract the work,” to CrazeVR.

Hodgson tells City Commissioners that local marketing professionals at Holt Bosse have also developed several concepts for items to assist the downtown, including a series of “Lift Up Downtown” videos, a package to assist businesses that do not have an Internet presence, and a directory service.

Meanwhile, 221 Main owner and operator Robert Montgomery has approached Hodgson and city officials voicing the idea of closing Pleasant Street in the city to traffic on weekends to allow it to become an outdoor dining plaza. Several communities along the Lake Michigan Shore including Saugatuck and Boyne City have undertaken the restaurant expansion into public spaces approach.

Hodgson says that his staff has been looking at the idea of closing streets to traffic to allow for dining or retail for several weeks, but says, “In consulting with the County Prosecutor, learned on May 1st that this is not permitted under the Executive Orders as they currently exist.” He adds, in his message to the Commission in the city’s meeting packet, “Conditions will change, though, and Mr. Montgomery would like to sound out the City Commission on the general concept and if it is supported would work with staff on details based on the conditions as they may exist, when an outdoor dining area may be allowed.”

The City Commission will take a look at the array of options under consideration when they meet tonight.

UPDATE: Robert Montgomery from 221 Main reports that the St. Joseph City Commission has approved his concept for the Pleasant Street Plaza, authorizing the closure of Pleasant Street to vehicular traffic where 221 Main and Silver Harbor Brewing Company are located on weekends this summer for outdoor dining. He says, “The Pleasant Street Plaza will be open from Friday for lunch until Sunday at dusk for street dining, and we hope to have everything ready by mid- to late-June.”