It's not all about the beaches: Clearwater begins to get back to business

Teachable moments inspire us daily as we transition from social distancing back to fulltime operation. In accordance with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Phase 1 Safe, Smart, Step-by-Step Plan for Florida’s recovery (Executive Order 20-112), businesses must balance cooperating with regulations and forward momentum.

No easy feat, for sure, but entrepreneurs and workers continue to show by example how resourcefulness and resilience can help them not only survive but thrive during this challenging time. In addition, this unusual period has provided a chance for many people to reassess, reignite, and sometimes start over with exciting opportunities for change and growth ahead.

With that in mind, the City of Clearwater’s Back to Business Grant and Professional Services Program is now open for registration and pre-qualification. Program guidelines, frequently asked questions, and a preview of the applications will be posted on the Back2Biz landing page. The deadline to apply is May 17.

The city's Back2Biz program is also offering several Facebook live events to communicate and inform residents about business-related programs that may be helpful. 

Business expertise amplified

Civic organizations like Clearwater Business SPARK, a network of resources provided by the city's economic development partners to support businesses and entrepreneurs, and AMPLIFY Clearwater have been providing guidance by posting links to grants and loans available, deadlines, and other much-needed information.

AMPLIFY Clearwater, the group that resulted from the merger of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce in 2019, has been presenting a Chamber Chat as part of its free educational webinar series to provide virtual expert advice from local experts to the local business community to assist in the Coronavirus pandemic.

“Ongoing throughout this pandemic, we have served as a resource of information, from offering a one-stop-shop of resources for employers and employees to hosting a variety of webinars related to all financial assistance options to providing peer-to-peer conversations around best practices to marketing and social media workshops and access to elected leaders,” says AMPLIFY CEO Amanda Payne. Chamber chats have featured community leaders such as Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gaultieri. More are planned. 

Payne also mentioned that AMPLIFY has created a guide called "Operation Forward," which provides a variety of helpful resources for employers as they move through the process of reopening their businesses.

“We look forward to continuing to support our business community as we move through the reopening and recovery phases and are excited to stand with them and help reimagine what our future looks like together,” Payne says.

Business leaders like Sheila Neisler, who runs Catalyst marketing company, have lent their expertise to AMPLIFY’s how-to webinars. Neisler offered some handy tips to startups and nonprofits in her presentation “Your Company 2.0: Reboot. Rebuild. Relaunch,” urging small business owners and nonprofits “to use their marketing brains before spending their marketing bucks.” Through the end of May, Neisler has committed to assisting clients in their “reboot” by waiving all fees.

Marketing “fails” happen when people don’t succeed in making a connection with their prospect and client, she says in her presentation. “Your company isn’t who you say it is. It’s who others say it is,” she cautions, recommending that business owners make their presence known, not showboat and hard-sell, pivot to cause marketing and show everyone that they’re in the trenches with the rest of the community.

Start-ups and starting over in a coworking space

“This is a time to reinvent yourself and change,” says Daniels Ikajevs, CEO of The Ring and owner of One Clearwater Tower. The Lativian former boxer named his wellness-focused, progressively designed suite of meeting and coworking spaces after the sparring rings of his younger days. He hosts Shark Tank-like business-pitch competitions in a space with a roped-off boxing ring, which he removes for special events.

Of course, there haven't been any events at The Ring in recent weeks. The last two months have been much quieter, but the spaces have remained open with some startups coming in periodically to do essential work. The staff, working virtually, has made drop-in checks while enacting more stringent cleaning procedures, cordoning off spaces with porous surfaces, and enforcing social distancing guidelines. 

“Daniels is very responsive,” says Janelle Branch, co-Founder and CEO at the Ring, in praise of her partner. “He started getting four months’ worth of supplies in January in preparation, so-to-speak, of weathering the storm.” 

In April, Daniels and Branch came up with a $25,000 relief initiative to assist existing and new members at all membership levels. “Our intention was to incentivize members in going back to the new normal of their business as soon as possible -- not just safeguard,” Daniels added.

Ring members can receive 30 percent off their current membership monthly dues on any two months they choose, applicable after April 30. They can also suspend up to two months of their current membership plan and add those months to the end of their agreement. During their suspended period, they will not be charged any monthly dues. 

Because you gotta eat

Local restaurants also began to reopen last week with more reopening this week. New lessons in supervising spaces and distancing present intriguing challenges, but managers say they’re ready and providing safe and clean spaces for those much-needed meal breaks. 

Pour Yours wine bar and cafe reopened on May 8. “We have been busy making the appropriate changes to ensure everyone's safety,” wrote co-owner Lina Teixeira in a news release. “Our team is committed to staying healthy and helping our customers to do so as well. We have implemented extensive sanitizing policies as well as organizational changes to ensure everyone remains safe.”

Big Storm Brewing Co. has reopened two of its three taprooms in Clearwater and Odessa. Indoor seating capacity at both taprooms, which offer food, is limited to 25-percent. Following the state’s guidelines, tables outside will also be set at least 6-feet apart. In addition, Big Storm is currently producing more than 2,000 gallons of hand-sanitizer spray each day. Customers will be able to purchase sanitizer in 16-ounce bottles and gallon containers while supplies last, and the taprooms will open at noon and close at 8 p.m. daily. The Clearwater taproom is located at 12707 49th St. N.

“Over the past several weeks, we have been able to continue our operations by shifting our focus to making hand sanitizer,” says co-owner L.J. Govoni. “I think a lot of people want a return to normalcy and for some, that includes going out for drinks and food.”

Maintaining perspective

Optimism can help businesses and individuals stay grounded. If that sounds easier in theory than in reality, remember that recording or journaling emotions decreases activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain attached to strong emotions, says “The Psychological Times.” 

Although it’s been a harrowing time financially, emotionally, and existentially for most, entrepreneurs think about those proverbial doors opening.
“This is a time to adapt and pivot,” says Branch. “You have an opportunity to focus on yourself and your happiness. I know it’s not the thing all business owners want to hear, but in life, you have to aim to be happy. You can work 20 hours a day or 100 hours a week, and the difference between true success and making money is having peace of mind. So, if you’re unhappy, this is an ideal time to make some important changes.”

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Read more articles by Julie Garisto.

A graduate of Largo High, USF, and the University of Tampa's Creative Writing MFA program, Julie Garisto grew up in Clearwater and now has a home in the Ocala National Forest. Between writing assignments, she's teaching English courses at Saint Leo University and other colleges. Julie has written arts features in Creative Pinellas' online magazine ArtsCoast Journal, Creative Loafing, Florida travel pieces  (Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Jacksonville), the Cade Museum, and features and reviews in the Tampa Bay Times. Her previous journalistic roles include arts and entertainment editor for Creative Loafing, staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, and copy editor for the Weekly Planet. Lately, she's been obsessed with exploring Florida's State Parks, small towns, and natural springs.