| The Columbus Dispatch
A loyal patron of the R Bar in the Arena District, which sits on North Front Street across from Nationwide Arena, started a GoFundMe page earlier this month to help the venerable sports bar stay open during the coronavirus pandemic.
The page raised more than $10,000 in its first 24 hours, and co-owner Michael Darr is grateful for the help.
“We have to do $40,000 a month just to cover our costs and break even,” he said. “We’re not even at half of that.”
The R Bar caters to fans of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who play at Nationwide. But activity at the arena and the Greater Columbus Convention Center a few blocks to the east has slowed to a trickle as the pandemic forced the cancellation of sporting events, concerts and other large gatherings.
That has crippled surrounding shops, bars and restaurants, who depend on a steady stream of crowds from those venues.
“The convention center alone is probably responsible for over 60% of our business throughout the year,” said Jason Fabian, general manager of Barley’s Brewing Company, which has a taproom on North High Street across from the convention center.
Nationwide Arena would ordinarily ramp up in November with the start of the Blue Jackets’ season. But that’s now not likely to begin until January thanks to the pandemic, and the number of fans allowed in attendance will be greatly reduced, if crowds are allowed at all.
Before the GoFundMe page, Darr estimated he could keep the R Bar open through November. Now he hopes to keep the tavern open through the holidays.
The sports bar owner isn’t the only entrepreneur in the neighborhood struggling to keep the lights on.
In a typical year, around 30 businesses open in the Short North and around 20 close, said Betsy Pandora, executive director of the Short North Alliance. This year, only 11 opened and around 30 closed or announced they will close, she said.
“And we’re not even through the end of the year,” Pandora said.
Prior to 2020, Columbus attracted about 41 million visitors annually who spent about $7 billion, according to Experience Columbus.
Festivals, conventions, sporting events and concerts draw those visitors, but those big-ticket events have largely been cancelled or scaled back since the the coronavirus arrived in the spring, starting with one of the biggest events of all, the Arnold Sports Festival and Fitness Expo, which draws about 200,000 visitors to Columbus each year.
“The impact really comes down to the ability of those venues to attract people into the region,” said economist Bill LaFayette, owner of the central Ohio economic consulting firm Regionomics.
Unlike spending from local residents, visitors bring money into the economy that wouldn’t have been spent here otherwise, LaFayette said.
“People from Mansfield or Dayton or Zanesville would come to Columbus for a big event, and if you’ve got a convention, you could be drawing people from all over the country,” he said. “That’s new money into the economy that creates jobs and wealth and income.”
Pandora said her organization estimates that more than a third of Short North shoppers in a conventional year are out-of-towners. Most are drawn by events at the convention center, the arena or concerts, she said.
“Wiping out that business almost entirely for this year, and likely well into the better part of the next year, that is incredibly impactful,” Pandora said.
Cash is tight for businesses that do manage to remain open, forcing them to reduce their operating expenses. For restaurants and bars already getting by on razor-thin profit margins, that almost always means cutting staff. The R Bar, for example, currently employs five people, Darr said.
“At prime hockey season, we have close to 25,” he said.
Bubbles the Tea and Juice Company cut half its workers at the North Market location near the arena, Operating Partner Joseph Ebner said. The tea and juice store works directly with the convention center in normal times, and often sets up booths inside the massive event center.
To further compensate for the reduction in business, the store stopped selling less-popular items to ensure that unused products don’t go to waste. Bubbles usually has 50 flavors, but now sells 30, Ebner said.
“In a normal year, a 5% order rate can sustain itself,” he said, but noted that during the pandemic “it’s not worth it to keep those things in stock.”
Restaurants and bars shifted more energy to takeout and delivery, because customers are wary of dining in and state rules restrict capacity.
“I would say about 30% of weekly sales are now carryout and delivery,” Fabian said of Barley’s current business. “That was a significant increase. In normal times, 5% of business would be carryout and delivery.”
Other entrepreneurs adopted new modes of business to conform to coronavirus-inspired shopping habits.
Restaurants expanded their outdoor dining areas after receiving a green light from the city, Pandora said, and many retailers started selling items online or began offering curbside pickup.
“They’re impressive and resilient,” she said. “But they are absolutely in need of support so we can continue to have this diverse and distinct place.”
But not every business can adapt to evolving customer demands.
“Being more of a bar than a restaurant, we really don’t have a to-go food menu that would be sustainable to live off of,” Darr said.