On August 18, Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester visited downtown Milford. After meeting with Mayor Archie Campbell, Blunt Rochester visited Gallery 37, Penney Square and Fur Baby Pet Resort. At Gallery 37, she asked owner/artist Marcia Reed what she needed from the federal government.
“We need a lot of things in Milford,” Reed said. “This is a great town with great people. When I moved here from Massachusetts, I was worried I would not find friends or that I would be viewed differently, but that is not what happened. One of the biggest things we need is help to make the downtown area more vital.”
Congressman Rochester stated that she was excited to see Reed’s enjoyment of what she was doing in her gallery which displays art from 59 artists from around the world.
“What is exciting about this is that you have taken a passion and created a quality of life you enjoy,” Congressman Rochester said. “I always say that if you want a good quality of life, you need to look to the arts. As a writer and a dancer, I am a big supporter of the arts. Quality of life is tied to many different pieces, but a love of the arts is critical. What I have seen more than anything during the pandemic is that people were creative in how they continued to do business. Some even started businesses while others developed new ways to conduct business. I spoke to a businessowner in Wilmington who said she was almost back to her pre-pandemic business level but was very concerned about the Delta variant taking her backwards.”
Yanelle Powell, President of Downtown Milford, Inc. told the congresswoman that Milford did not lose any downtown businesses to the pandemic.
After finishing at Gallery 37, Congressman Rochester walked down Walnut Street, learning about the North Pole Creamery which utilized a downtown building that was empty for 11 months of the year, praising the city for the forethought to create such a fun use of the Santa House. The next stop on her tour was Penney Square where she spoke to owner Zack King.
Penney Square is undergoing major renovation that King and his construction company are doing themselves. He explained to Blunt Rochester that he and his wife, Marissa, purchased the building in December and received historic approval for the building in June, a process was very complicated.
“We have one apartment already completely renovated,” King said. “My dream is that one day Walnut Street will be completely closed to vehicles and be a pedestrian only thoroughfare.”
King explained that he and his wife also owned EasySpeak, a distillery and restaurant. When asked what challenges they had faced over the past year, King stated that supply has been very difficult.
“We are at 50 to 60 percent food costs right now with crabmeat and other items,” King said. “Electrical panels for the apartment should cost $2,000 but are now $8,000 and that is just the supplies, not the labor.”
The couple has invested heavily in Milford, King said, because they love the town. He explained that even with growth, Milford still has that small town feel with people saying hello to each other, holding doors and just being kind. King pointed to the corner retail location in the building, stating that it was a church currently, but that they hoped to bring a restaurant to the location as there was a full commercial kitchen.
“We already run one restaurant,” King said. “I don’t want to run a second one because I just don’t have the time. We would like to bring something new in here.”
During the pandemic, EasySpeak was one of the first distilleries to start making hand sanitizer which helped sustain them through the beginning of the pandemic. He also took advantage of grants and loans to keep their staff employed and do some renovations to EasySpeak while also continuing to sell their hand-crafted spirits. Although they have recently struggled a little with staffing as some of their staff has moved on to other things, workforce has not been a huge issue for them.
“We have a good rapport with our staff,” King said. “They could have simply gone on assistance, but they stayed with us.”
Congressman Rochester explained that the federal government was trying to be sure they are expanding opportunities.
“This was a pandemic,” she said. “It will take time to recover, mentally and economically. You are now helping us to sustain the economy and it is exciting to see that you have a vision for where you want to go.”
The Congresswoman ended her visit at Fur Baby Pet Resort and learned about Sherry Shupe’s journey to where the business is today.
“I was in the pharmaceutical business, making good money, great benefits, but on weekends, I didn’t want to get off the couch, so I decided to start volunteering at animal rescues,” Shupe said. “The rest is kind of history. I opened a small retail store on Walnut Street, and we have expanded four times. We always wanted to own a building and Bryan found this one which had been empty for 20 years. We purchased it, renovated it and here we are.”
Blunt Rochester told Shupe that it was evident that she was very happy doing what she was doing every day.
“We are hearing from so many young people that they are tired of jobs that don’t fulfill them,” Blunt Rochester said. “They want fulfilment. They want to live with a purpose.”
Shupe explained that the PPP funds were extremely helpful to keep her business moving in the right direction. They created an online store almost overnight and added curbside pickup to get through the pandemic. They were considered essential as they sold pet food and many first responders and front-line workers used their boarding facility so they could go to work.
“Our biggest challenge right now is staffing,” Shupe said. “I have a few staff I had to lay off who have collected unemployment. They are college students and are not willing to come back to work until they know what their college is going to do. The minimum wage increase here in Delaware came at a terrible time. We are still struggling with the losses we incurred in 2020 plus the things we had to add to stay in business during a pandemic. We can only charge so much for daycare and boarding. We already pay over minimum wage, but if I am going to be required to pay a new employee $15 an hour when they start, I have to bump my other employees up and then I need to bump my managers up. It is a snowball effect, and we are not getting any guidance on how to manage that.”
Blunt Rochester stated that she would like to talk to Shupe one-on-one in the future to see how the government could help businesses like hers.
“Jobs are so important,” Blunt Rochester said. “Small business makes up 98 percent of our economy. It is all connected. If people can’t travel, they are not boarding animals. If people are working from home, they don’t need doggie daycare. We need to have these conversations, about the struggle small business faces when minimum wage rises, about the employees who are not returning to work due to fear of the virus or because they are caring for someone suffering from it or something else. This needs to be a collective conversation about both sides of this coin so those of you who are passionate about your business can continue to thrive.”
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