April 1 is known for pranks, but for many commercial tenants in the South End this year, it has been a date on the calendar that is no joke.
With the COVID-19 response coming so fast and furious in March, April 1 became the first time that rent payments were due since the bottom fell out of the economy, social life and the health care system. Many businesses have been shut down completely, while others deemed essential continue to operate but on very narrow margins.
GTI Properties owner Mario Nicosia announced last week that he was giving all of his tenants in the SoWa Art + Design district some sort of break. Nicosia has been a long-time supporter of small business and operations one of the largest business incubators in the region with the SoWa Market.
Retail tenants in their buildings are receiving forgiveness for rent in April from GTI, and artists and galleries at SoWa are getting a break on half of their rental payments.
“We’re trying to do our part,” said Bradley St. Amand of GTI. “Mario really wanted to do this right away and he has always supported small business. We gave all the retail tenants free rent in April, which is about 60 or 70 of them. We did half rental payments for all of the studios and there are about 125 of those studios…We’re trying to do what we can. I probably cost GTI a lot. We’re taking a hit like everyone else and we still have mortgages and maintenance and staff to pay.”
St. Amand said they hoped that giving tenants a break would take the stress off of them for a month when some retail operations have been forcibly shut down by the order of Gov. Charlie Baker.
“It was good to help and take some stress off of them,” he said.
Taking the stress off is exactly what happened for Megan and Moria Flynn at M.Flynn Jewelry on Waltham Street in one of GTI’s buildings. As things began to get worse, Megan said they started sending staff home and then began cost-cutting measures. Soon enough, they found themselves on a list of non-essential businesses that had to close.
“It was a huge relief when Mario told us,” said Megan. “We were preparing. Moriah and I looked at all of our expenses and looked to see what we could do. There is so much uncertainty with the next several weeks. We did a lot of things proactively to try to help the situation, but we never imagined he would do something like that for us in April. We often forget that people who rent us our businesses and apartments also have mortgages and property tax – and property taxes in Boston are outrageous. I hope landlords like that get a break. Everyone has to give a little bit.”
Megan said they do go in to fill some online orders each day, but for the most part they are closed down and revenues are small. They are hoping that the peak of the virus can pass by May so they hit a lucrative time in their business year.
“We’re coming up on one of our busiest times of the year,” she said. “Graduations and Mother’s Day is like a second holiday season for us. We’re just hoping it is May 7 when we can re-open. That is such an important time for us…It’s so hard though to anticipate what consumer sentiment will be at that time. Will it be like everything is great and people will flock to the restaurants and stores to celebrate, or will they stay inside and still be hesitant to come out and resume their lives?”
Meanwhile, at the Urban Grape on Columbus Avenue, they are an essential business and have been open throughout the COVID-19 response. She said that customer safety has been paramount and they are pushing pick-up, curbside sales as much as possible.
“Our priority is keeping our employees and customers safe,” said Hadley Douglas. “We are constantly adjusting our procedures to make sure exposure is low. We have drastically limited access to the store. We have pushed more people to do pickup. That gives everyone a greater sense of safety…Even though we’re open, I can’t say it feels as good as it used to. Selling beer, wine and spirits is a fun job, but it just doesn’t have that aspect now.”
When it comes to business, Douglas said they are doing okay, but a recent pitch to their landlord to help with April 1 payments didn’t go well.
“We are okay economically for the time being, but there’s a sense that we’re a hair’s breadth away from having to close due to more regulations, or someone gets sick or it just gets too dangerous,” she said. “We have worries about our rent because it is high like all rents in the South End. We have been told we are expected to pay for April and we will. We offered to pay half rent and then make it up later in the year, but they couldn’t do that. They said they had businesses that were hit harder they needed to help first. I’m totally fine with that and understand it.”
Through it all, she said, people are drinking wine and spirits. She said with people not being able to go out to dinner, they are making dinner special and buying nice bottles of wine or focusing on white wines. She said many people share photos with her of them opening a great bottle of wine for dinner.
“That’s what keeps me going now, seeing people open these great bottles of wine to enjoy and then sending me pictures of it,” she said. “That’s what makes my day.”