Glass clinks, drunks laugh; the Barlow bursts at the seams with brightly clad tourists, nearly all in khakis and sandals. Business, it seems, has almost returned to the pre-pandemic levels we enjoyed back in March, but all the foot traffic belies a dark truth: the Barlow is in trouble.
The commercial district built its recovery upon the simple foundation of outdoor dining and shopping. And for the most part it’s worked. The Barlow is tailor made for the model. Huge, open-concept retail spaces lend themselves naturally to a bazaar shopping experience, like one might find in the distant markets of Morocco.
But all of that recovery depends on sunny, warm weather. That’s no guarantee, especially in winter. Sonoma County averages 31 inches of rain a year, falling ten days a month. That means for a third of the space between November and February the Barlow will serve its patrons in freezing wind and rain.
In good years a winter slump is expected. But for small business owners like Sam Levy, partner of the Fern Bar, this year could be devastating.
“We’ve been conservative from the beginning,” Levy said. “When rumors of the shutdown came in late February, early March, we had our team file for unemployment. We told them to get on it, take advantage of every opportunity they could.”
Levy claims the Fern Bar suffered a 53 percent decline in sales, thanks mostly to Covid-19. But he’s done what he could. He secured a small part of the Federal Government’s PPP Loan. The money’s long-since run out, of course and with the current state of Washington it’s unlikely more is on its way any time soon. The Fern Bar decided not to participate in Sebastopol’s small business loan program, feeling their neighbors needed it more.
“The 150,000 is great, but we can’t rely on a small town like Sebastopol to keep us open. It just isn’t feasible,” Levy said. He hopes its savior will come in a new round of PPP funding, or in many new opportunities present 3in the new Covid-19 market, like his company’s to-go cocktails and meal kits. “The word ‘pivot’ is used a lot,”
This isn’t the first crisis the world forced Levy to navigate. He opened his business in December of 2018. Two months later, in February of 2019, the Barlow flooded, filling the streets with knee-deep water. The flood destroyed thousands of dollars’ worth of property for businesses across the Barlow. Even after the water left, foot-traffic suffered, many believing the Barlow closed for repairs. The loss of customers forced several companies to shutter for good.
Levy lays the blame for the flood squarely at the feet of his landlord, Barney Aldridge. He and eight other Barlow businesses filed a lawsuit against Aldridge due to a failure, Levy claims, to properly enact Sebastopol’s Flood Emergency Plan. This view is shared by the City of Sebastopol in its May 23, 2019 report which investigated the flood’s cause. The lawsuit is ongoing.
Sebastopol revised its Flood Emergency Plan back in Feb. of this year. It now demands the Barlow to coordinate with Crossing the Jordan Academy and People Ready for manpower, distribute flood barriers and ensure their back-water valves aren’t blocked with debris.
But for Levy these changes might not be enough. “Do I feel confident? No. But we’re as prepared as we can be.”