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‘They need us more than ever:’ Olga Bof talks about the importance of supporting local businesses

Jaymi Butler

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Six months ago, when businesses began to shutter with the spread of Covid-19, it was almost inconceivable that the pandemic and its restrictions and limitations would last this long. Yet here we are, with no guarantees of a return to “normal” any time soon. In this series, the Catalyst talks with leaders in business, the arts and government about those six long months, about sacrifices they’ve made, and continue to make in order to survive, and about the future and how it looks to them. This is The New Normal.

Olga Bof was concerned about the changing local business landscape long before she ever heard of Covid-19. The founder of Keep Saint Petersburg Local, a nonprofit business advocacy organization, has watched warily as outside developers have come in and local businesses have been forced out. Each closing gets a little more painful, representing what she views as the slow erosion of what makes St. Pete special.

Olga Bof

Olga Bof

“I worry we won’t recognize our beloved city,” she said. “I was fearful we’d see a lot of our local businesses close due to changes that had already taken place. It’s Covid-related, but it’s also about what happens when developers are the ones shaping what we are.”

Six months into the pandemic, The Catalyst sat down for a virtual conversation with Bof about Covid-19, its impact on the community and what Keep Saint Petersburg Local is doing to stand up for local businesses.

St. Pete Catalyst: When did Covid-19 first show up on your radar?

Bof: I don’t think we here in the U.S. really paid attention, at least in my point of view, until early March. We had just held our largest festival, Localtopia, on Feb. 22 and we had more than 30,000 people. It was probably one of the last festivals to take place. As we were preparing for Localtopia, we’d heard murmurings about something happening in China so our welcome center manager said “I think I’ll get wipes at the stations in case people wanted to sanitize their beer cans.” Beyond that, we didn’t feel like we were impacted yet in our bubble of St. Pete. I left town after the festival a week later to get some down time. I flew back the night of Friday, March 13 and planned to leave again the following Monday, but that was when people were starting to realize “oh, this is huge.” I’d read about South by Southwest being canceled and I thought how lucky we were to have been able to put on Localtopia. And then I heard about what happened with Covid outbreaks in New Orleans after Mardi Gras, and I was concerned the same thing might happen here. We were all holding our breaths for the two weeks after Localtopia. That whole month of March was the biggest roller coaster for me. 

What was the initial response by the community in terms of support for small businesses?

A lot of people didn’t realize we’ve been working on our business alliance for more than 10 years. They like the idea of keeping St. Pete local, but they thought it was only a hashtag. I think people started focusing more on local businesses during Covid because they realized that these businesses are facing the biggest crisis of their lives. Keep Saint Petersburg Local was being called upon to act and voice the importance of supporting local businesses more than ever. I couldn’t take a backseat and say “this is too hard.” I had to be there fighting for them.

You’ve long been an advocate for supporting small businesses. How did you amplify that message during the pandemic?

 

Friends, we get it, everyone is struggling right now – we’re all struggling to do the best thing for ourselves, for our…

Posted by Keep Saint Petersburg Local on Tuesday, March 17, 2020

 

On March 17, we shared an image of the crowd at Localtopia. We wrote “we get it, everyone is struggling now, and our local businesses are struggling too. None of them could have prepared for something like this and they’re going to need us now.” Since that point, all our messaging has been around that, and it’s constant. We will post on our Facebook page and then I’ll put it on my wall and my Instagram. We’re working as hard as possible to disseminate our messages as many ways as possible.

How do you use your platform to educate people about why it’s so important to shop local?

A lot of people equate local with being more expensive. We’re trying to educate people that’s not always the case. It’s not just about what you buy, it’s about how you live your life thinking local first for everything. You may not have a local option for everything, but, for example, if you’re at a supermarket and not at a local market like Rolling Oats, it’s about trying to source local products. Like if you’re buying beer at Publix, pick up some local cans rather than imports. We won’t all have the money to eat out now, but if you’re going to order from a restaurant, please order from a local restaurant and go one step further – pick up your food yourself or use the restaurant’s own delivery options rather than using Uber Eats so the restaurant doesn’t have to pay the extra fees. If you’re buying on Amazon, look and see if there’s a local option. There are hundreds of local businesses you can turn to, and we’ve created a list that you can download and consult before you go to Amazon or Target. Chewy.com will be OK after this is over, but our local businesses might not. 

Do you think people are more aware now as a result of your messages?

I’m hearing and seeing and reading it more that people understand they need to shop local. I also think people are more in tune with making sure they’re purchasing from people of color and we definitely talk about our minority owned businesses. We’re trying to point to them as much as possible. 

Do you feel you’ve taken on a counselor role during the pandemic?

I’ve been a counselor for a long time, and I’ve been checking in with business owners to see how they’re doing, aside from needing money. I’ve been keeping them posted the entire time on the financial support that was provided through the city’s Fighting Chance Fund and Pinellas CARES so they could take advantage of those opportunities. But our local business owners are strong and resilient. Being an entrepreneur means you’re a risk taker, but Covid has made a lot of business owners change the way they operate. Many of them didn’t have an online presence so they had to shift in that direction and build or beef up their websites. They had to figure out PPE and how to keep their staff employed. Every day, I feel like we’re all waking up and figuring out what we have to learn about on the fly and become experts on within to keep ourselves going. Especially for bars and restaurants – every week they had changes to contend with. I just don’t know how anyone outside of an entrepreneur can juggle all of that. 

Now that we are at the six-month point in the pandemic, how do you feel about the state of local businesses?

In some regards, I’m pleased that the majority of our businesses are telling us they’re hanging on. I thought we’d have more closures by now so it seems the call to keep it local has been heeded by most. What concerns me most are the forces at work before Covid and some of the closures. I’m fearful of what happens after this in the case of what cities are going to look like when there’s so much excitement around the “new new” which is distressing to me. The new developments we’re seeing are only possible because of risk takers that came before them, the St. Pete-grown businesses. Developers are attracted to the unique vibe here and the folks from outside the area have moved here bringing in concepts that are not unique to St. Pete. We have to walk the talk as a community. You can’t say you want to keep it local but then you’re queuing for a restaurant that can be found in cities around the world. There’s a disconnect there. When we resurface, we’ll have a bunch of restaurants and retailers that started elsewhere and then we’ll look like Anytown USA. That’s my greatest fear. We’re slowly losing that special St. Pete vibe. I always say “buy local or bye bye local.”

Are there any positives we can take away from the last six months?

I already knew we lived in a very special place. The St. Pete community is not just unique in what it looks like but the people that make up our community are very special and caring. What Covid has done is continue to nurture a community that does want to help itself and its members. I remain hopeful this experience will make us stronger having been through this together. It’s been hard and crappy but a lot of us are focusing on the silver lining. We’ve had more time with family and other people we probably took for granted before. I always believe that positivity is best, and I truly believe good things will come from this.

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