Located just a few miles north of Detroit, Royal Oak is a vibrant destination for entertainment, dining, and shopping. Under normal circumstances, Royal Oak’s downtown is bustling with people—yet its urban density and reliance on foot traffic made the pandemic’s impacts that much more challenging. When stay-at-home orders were enacted in March 2020, it was clear that the impact could be devastating to the local economy, resulting in business closures and long-term job losses. Just as important, the threat to small businesses also represented a threat to the community’s character—and to the future of Royal Oak as a destination for visitors and entrepreneurs.
Faced with this challenge, the DDA took immediate action to establish the Rebound Royal Oak Program, funded with the $2 million proceeds from a 2018 land sale. As its first initiative in the program, the DDA offered small business assistance grants to restaurants, retailers, salons, entertainment venues, and cafes. All told, 92 businesses applied for the program—and all 92 were approved for funding, accounting for nearly $1.1 million in total. Grants were disbursed in installments for businesses, who could count on a monthly check from the DDA through the early summer of 2020.
While direct assistance helped prevent the local economy from collapsing, the DDA also stimulated demand by subsidizing consumer spending through Royal Oak Downtown Dollars. Funded by an initial $400,000 allocation from Rebound Royal Oak, the DDA sent free $20 e-gift cards to the first 20,000 Royal Oak residents and consumers that signed up for its e-newsletter. The cards can be redeemed at more than 70 locations in downtown Royal Oak, including restaurants, cafes, retailers, entertainment venues, and salons.
The business recovery program established by the DDA helped businesses stay open and thrive throughout the pandemic. Credit: Royal Oak DDA
Downtown Dollars not only helped local shops stay open, but it also generated more business. In fact, Mathew Abraham, owner of Rail & Anchor, saw sales spike 20% year-over-year in July. People from throughout southeastern Michigan began visiting Royal Oak to redeem their gift cards, as the program built customer loyalty, solidified relationships between shoppers and local brands, and strengthened a sense of community.
“The business recovery program established by the Downtown Development Authority is the most impactful project we have ever implemented, and we are honored to be recognized by Main Street America,” said Sean Kammer, downtown manager for Royal Oak. “The grants and the Downtown Dollars program are helping to make sure all businesses are successful, and that Downtown Royal Oak continues to evolve into the future. We have heard from so many that these programs saved their business, and it’s amazing to see what can be accomplished when a community comes together.”
The Downtown Dollars program was such a success that it continued into the holiday season, with a match for anyone who purchased cards online. Downtown Royal Oak consumers can still purchase Downtown Dollars gift cards by visiting visitroyaloak.com.
“We are proud of the quick response and progressive efforts of the Royal Oak Downtown Development Authority,” said John Bry, Coordinator for the Main Street Oakland County program. “The leadership of the DDA serves as a model and inspiration for the other Main Street Oakland County communities and downtowns everywhere in times of crisis. The proactive approach and vision implemented by downtown Royal Oak resulted in many businesses being saved or extended critical lifelines impacted by the pandemic. The Royal Oak DDA has clearly demonstrated a Main Street Forward mentality, and the vital economic development role Main Street communities everywhere play in their communities.”