Fighting Zika on the streets
Still reeling from a steep drop in visitors in the wake of the Zika outbreak, Wynwood business owners are asking the city of Miami for a quarter-million-dollar grant so they can mount a promotional campaign to recapture the once-sizzling arts and entertainment district’s buzz.
The request, which the city commission will consider during its budget hearing on Tuesday, comes as Wynwood retailers and restaurant operators say commerce remains down significantly even amid signs in the past week that people are starting to trickle back.
“It’s still spotty,” said Joe Furst, managing director for Wynwood at Goldman Properties and chairman of the Wynwood Improvement District, a semi-autonomous city body that’s asking for the grant. “There may be one day where business creeps back, but then that’s followed by a series of days when it’s depressed.”
Formally, the BID request is for $248,000 for three months’ worth of enhanced police and sanitation services, something the agency normally pays for. But getting the funding would allow the agency, which collects a special tax from district property owners, to shift money in its budget over to the promotional and marketing campaign, Furst said.
The campaign would spotlight what Furst described as Wynwood’s “unique” shops, bars and restaurants and their operators, and add a fashion night to promote its clothing retailers, much like the famed art walk and collectors’ nights highlight the art galleries that launched the area’s revival.
The funding idea came from Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who said he will ask the commission for the grant on Tuesday although it’s not in his budget plan. He said some Wynwood businesses are already having to cut employees’ hours.
“This is a very legitimate ask,” Regalado said, noting that he believes the city can justify picking up policing and sanitation costs under the circumstances. “They’re really hurting.”
Business in the district plummeted at the end of July after federal and state health authorities confirmed that active transmission of Zika by mosquitoes, which has been linked to serious birth defects, was occurring in a one-square-mile area encompassing Wynwood and adjacent Midtown Miami.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to advise pregnant women to avoid the area, where at least 29 cases have been linked to local transmission by mosquitoes, according to the Florida Department of Health. The CDC extended the warning to all of Miami-Dade County after active mosquito transmission was later confirmed on South Beach, which hasn’t yet reported a marked impact on business.
At late lunchtime Wednesday, there was a 15-minute wait to order at the counter at Coyo Taco, a popular casual eatery on Northwest Second Avenue, Wynwood’s main drag. But business was light next door at usually packed Panther Coffee. A BID board member said the coffee house’s operators, as well as owners of several other prominent establishments in the immediate vicinity, say their business remains down by over 40 percent.
“We were so busy before all this, but now?” said Lyla Bessiso, cashier at Zak the Baker, another Wynwood stalwart, gesturing at mostly vacant tables and the pastries still heaped in baskets on the counter at mid-afternoon.
Wynwood business people are pinning their hopes on a lifting of the CDC advisory, something normally done 45 days after the last confirmed local transmission has taken place. That date would come Sept. 19 for Wynwood. Although the state announced a newly confirmed Wynwood Zika case on Thursday, that person became infected back in July.
At a BID meeting on Wednesday, board member David Polinsky held up a sign reading “25 Days,” the span of time since the date when the last confirmed transmission in Wynwood took place. BID members were angered last week when they say news headlines mischaracterized a state announcement of four additional Zika cases in Wynwood dating to July as if they were newly occurred transmissions.
Noting that county and city officials have dramatically ramped up mosquito control efforts in Wynwood, and have reported that mosquito counts in the district are down, Polinsky afterward quipped that the neighborhood might be “the most Zika-free zone” anywhere.
Regalado said he hopes the grant will help provide enough of a bounce to tide businesses over until the massive infusion of commerce during Art Basel time in early December. By then, he said, he also hopes the state and federal governments would step in with additional aid for the neighborhood.
But he said the strategy is also risky. He said Wynwood business owners fear a fresh infection would force an extension of the travel advisory and derail any recovery, Regalado said.
“They are horrified about the possibility of getting to Art Basel with this travel warning still on,” the mayor said.
Until July, Wynwood had been one of the brightest spots in Miami’s urban revival, drawing worldwide attention and crowds of mostly young customers as scores of hip new shops and restaurants opened in the past couple of years in what had been a collection of dilapidated warehouses. At last count, Furst said, there were 440 businesses in the district employing an estimated 4,000 people.