For small businesses here in University City and across the country, the past few months have presented unimaginable challenges. A long list of local businesses have had to close their doors as a result of the COVID–19 pandemic. However, many local organizations have taken the lead in making sure that beloved institutions can remain afloat—including our own University City District.

Street sat down with Chris Richman, the Marketing and Communications director for University City District, to learn more about the initiatives UCD is taking to ensure that our favorite businesses can keep their doors open. 

When the pandemic hit, small business assistance quickly became UCD’s top priority, Richman explains: “Small business assistance is one small portion of what University City District does, but when the pandemic hit, and we saw what we were facing and the lockdown, we knew that it was going to become the most important thing to do on a very quick basis.”

While UCD would typically have dedicated the spring months to planning many of their signature summer events, performances, and promotions, this year, full attention was dedicated to helping small businesses keep their doors open. 

“I think we all very quickly recognized, with the lockdown, that the restaurants and small businesses and retail stores were really gonna be the hardest hit. We found ourselves wanting to basically put a Band–Aid on the dam [and] to help in a small way at the beginning,” Richman continues.

Seeing that restaurants would be the first category of businesses to need their aid, UCD established its first promotional endeavor—a gift card matching program—back in March to provide a much–needed financial boost. Seven months later, UCD has only continued to brainstorm several similar initiatives that aim to keep our favorite establishments alive.

Back in June, when Philadelphia began to lift restrictions and allowed small businesses to finally reopen their doors, UCD focused their energy on helping local establishments navigate new rules and regulations. 

“In June, we also started plotting and working with other business improvement districts across [Philadelphia] to kind of strategize together, so that we weren’t [opening up] in a vacuum. That led us to be a sounding board and resource for restaurants who were having trouble keeping up with, or understanding, new permitting laws and, like, what they were allowed to do in terms of outdoor dining,” Richman explains. 

UCD also assisted local businesses in evaluating what parts of the neighborhood could support a street closure that would allow restaurants to expand outdoor seating. Anyone currently living in or near UCity has probably noticed that Sansom's 3400 block looks slightly different—White Dog Cafe, Baby Blues BBQ, and other Sansom staples now legally and efficiently boast outdoor seating. 

One of the district's biggest endeavors thus far has been University City Dining Days. From September 19 through October 4, dozens of participating restaurants offered both discounts and meals at a set price, available for takeout and delivery, for in–person dining or in special make–at–home kits.

While things are slowly starting to return to normal, local institutions are still facing a variety of challenges related to COVID–19. Casual eateries that depended primarily on students, in particular, are struggling mightily. “One of the struggles for a lot of the businesses was that they were waiting for the Penn and Drexel students to return, which obviously didn’t happen,” Richman explains. 

Though Penn was unable to offer an in–person semester, the University is still showing its support for the area it calls home, granting UCD $250,000 to lend a hand to about 150 local businesses. 

While we can all cite unfortunate instances of much–loved establishments shutting down, Richman notes that the immense amount of support for that businesses have seen from the neighborhood has helped UCity fare better than most: “I would say, anecdotally, that it seems that in our neighborhood, restaurants are doing O.K.” 

Although it is difficult to see storefronts that have served as integral parts of the Penn experience encounter tough times, students can rest assured that the University City District is rising to the challenge and providing immense support to those who need it.