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Bustling street fairs and neighborhood celebrations were wiped out by COVID-19 caution in 2020, and even though vaccines are coming fast, organizers are still cautious about 2021.

COURTESY PHOTO: VENTURE PORTLAND  - Venture Portland and the neighborhood business associations such as the St. Johns Boosters Business Association have been finding new ways to have in person celebrations and promotions to boost business under COVID-19 restrictions. Stephanie Calvert of Hound & Hare Vintage was part of a a scavenger hunt clues in the windows of 10 businesses. VP gave away 100 pumpkins (donated by Topaz Farms) and held a decorating contest on Instagram with custom-made prizes donated by A Nice Lady in St. Johns  .

At Venture Portland, a group of around 50 neighborhood business associations, this year's mantra is to keep it small and socially distanced until we know COVID is kaput.

"If there's a way to alter your event to a Zoom-type event or an Instagram giveaway, we encourage that," Venture Portland's Executive Director Joy Church told the Business Tribune last week. "Because we certainly don't have the go-ahead from the governor to say, 'Sure you can have a massive street festival!' Because some of these street festivals, they'll bring in 20,000 guests. We are not encouraging that at this point."

The 35-year-old organization charges small businesses $100 annually, large businesses $150 for membership. Those businesses get help banding together to put on celebrations and promotions around their neighborhood, giving them a sense of identity and drawing in customers. It's primarily retail-focused, but other businesses get involved.

They've been adapting to the two arm's length life of the COVID consumer.

COURTESY: VENTURE PORTLAND - Venture Portland Director Joy Church says local businesses are spreading out their usual street fairs and other celebration over time and space this year to comply with social distancing rules. It's been hard but she has been impressed with their resilience and flexibility, including passport promotions on Instagram and self-guided scavenger hunts for Halloween where kids check in and get a prepacked bag of candy. The mood amongst small local retailers seems to be we're not out of the woods yet.

One example is Frazier Wealth Management in Northeast Portland. During the Christmas of COVID, they moved their 'meet Santa and Mrs. Claus' attraction into the office. Masked kids were able to sidle up to the glass of a conference room and wave at the Claus couple, shouting their gift wishes. It was better than nothing.

And in 2021, there's going to be another Rose Festival Porch Parade. In 2020, more than 400 locals signed up for official yard signs then decorated their porches and front yards with brands or wacky themes since the Rose Parade was canceled. People could visit them in person or online. This year it will be bigger, with more of a rose theme. Organizers are soliciting more businesses to get involved, just as Hotel Portland did 100 years ago in its site where Pioneer Courthouse Square is now.

"We are trying to enhance the brand of Portland as the Rose City and demonstrate some unity in a time when that's something we can all use," said Jessica Metteer, Special Events Manager at the Portland Rose Festival Foundation, in a recent Venture Portland information session on the 2021 Rose Festival. "We want to remind people why Portland is a great place to live and visit, and get them back out on the street and engaging with businesses and neighborhoods."

COVID-19 to 21

Most Venture Portland board members are volunteers. "COVID has been a real struggle for the developers to continue their volunteer participation, to help their business associations continue to stay alive and thrive during COVID," said Church. Business people have been staying afloat.

Venture Portland offers grants and training, which are now all webinar training. It puts out media releases and a weekly newsletter to support small businesses and offers other forms of technical assistance for business owners. Recently, grants have shifted from funding street fairs to infrastructure, subsidizing outdoor eating areas for restaurants — paying for heaters, plastic, and timber construction.

Business associations are member associations, whereas neighborhood associations let you in just for being a local. The latter organizes events too, such as the Cathedral Park cleanup in St John's.

COURTESY PHOTO: VENTURE PORTLAND  - Venture Portland's Board President Liz Smith, who is also the Board President of the St. Johns Boosters Business Association, says the Boosters have been applying for grants for bigger projects, especially fixing up or building things within the district. Most of their income is from memberships, at $100 to $150 a year.

OK Booster

Venture Portland's Board President Liz Smith, who is also the Board President of the St. Johns Boosters Business Association, has also been in neighborhood associations.

She says the St. John's Boosters do apply for grants for more significant projects, especially fixing up or building things within the district, but most of their income is from memberships.

For example, planners of the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, to which the business association is closely aligned, are "trying to plan the in-person festival, but with the backup plan of having the infrastructure in place in case they have to go virtual again." She adds that the St. John's parade and St. John's Bazaar, a craft and music festival, are not happening this year.

COURTESY PHOTO: VENTURE PORTLAND  - Venture Portland has been encouraging local businesses to keep in touch with consumers during COVID-19. VP gave away 100 pumpkins (donated by Topaz Farms) and held a decorating contest on Instagram with custom-made prizes donated by A Nice Lady in St. Johns.

Passport, please

St. John's recently had a month-long promotion to encourage eating in local restaurants called St. John's Bites. They had people stamp a paper passport to enter a drawing for gift certificates for local businesses. Now it is all happening via Instagram. The social media service makes it easy to sort consumers into different buckets. Eat, pay, hashtag, repeat.

St. John's got the passport idea from the Foster business district, who also shifted theirs to be an online promotion.

"We will probably see a shift to more spread out (over time and space), smaller-scale events happening on multiple weekends or over the course of a week, in districts throughout the city," said Church. "To still attract people to those areas and encourage them to shop local, but at the same time, keep from having large numbers of people assembling."

Is Cinco de Mayo coming up? Make a list of places that sell take-out margaritas. A typical recent promotion was a simple list of flower shops around the city in anticipation of Mother's Day.

"This year is a mixed bag of people trying alternate things. We facilitate those connections between these volunteer-run groups that operate independently but don't really have a lot of experience doing marketing and promotion. We help them learn from each other, so they don't have to reinvent the wheel."

Church went to all the chapter presidents and talked to them or Zoomed with them to ask them how the pandemic affected them and what was still working.

The Catalytic Investment Initiative program is run for underserved areas in the city, especially North and East Portland. "We can help them to plan out their entire year. If we see that, 'Oh, you're not really doing anything between December and June, maybe Earth day would be a great way to kind of fill in that shoulder season." Or if they want to do a neighborhood cleanup, they put them in touch with others who have done it successfully so they can get the best equipment, messaging and execution.


Last fall, St. John's turned its trick-or-treat walk into something new.

"Imagine all the little kids going to all the different stores and getting candy. We were like, 'Oh my gosh, this is this is not what we want to encourage!" said Smith of St. John's Boosters.

So, they turned it into a scavenger hunt, spread out over a week.

"You could find the 10 witches, the ghost, all that stuff, fill out a piece of paper, and you didn't even have to go during business hours. Then turn in the piece of paper to the store, and they would give you a pre-packaged bag of candy. Because the stores really wanted to do something."

Smith says one upside is that people have gotten better at social media. Places that never had a website, e-commerce or mobile commerce suddenly have it. She recommends they get on Instagram and show the experience of shopping — what the store looks like, who's in, and what's for sale.

Are we there yet? No.

The message from Venture Portland is that businesses want to stay open. Yet, they also support safety measures for their staff, even if it cuts down foot traffic in stores — even in the age of increasing COVID-19 vaccination. Remind people why they used to love to shop.

"I know, from talking to our businesses, that it makes them a little bit nervous when people get a little bit overly confident with just having vaccinations and what that means," said Church. "So, the messaging that we've adopted is encourage people to be in the districts but to still follow the protocols to do it safely. You know, 'We're good at this. Now we know how to do it. Let's do it safely.' And also, to really encourage people to go outdoors, with things like the Healthy Streets initiative where they allow tables and outdoor seating and parking spots in front of businesses."

Church feels their frustration at dealing with a moving target — what the health authority recommends and what the state will allow.

"Small businesses have just continued to alter, alter, alter their business models every week. They seem to be able to make these adjustments in days. It's very impressive."

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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