DENHAM SPRINGS — Despite the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic that has affected many small business throughout the state and nation, the Antique Village, a collection of shops and restaurants in the city’s Downtown Historic District, is thriving, officials said.
“We are 100% back since we reopened on May 1 and sales in June and so far in July have really been encouraging," said Al Bye, president of the Downtown Merchants Association. "We were closed for about six weeks, we were devastated and we didn’t know what the future might hold at the time; but our shop owners are very encouraged by how well sales have gone since we were able to reopen."
Bye said the stores in the Antique Village have continued to attract customers from a wide area and observed that a trend seems to be emerging that residents of Louisiana and some neighboring states are taking day trips to destinations within the state.
“We have had customers from Alexandria, Lake Charles, New Orleans, the Lafayette area and cities in Mississippi. I think that some people are just making short trips and looking for destinations that are closer to their homes," Bye said. "We are grateful that a good number of these travelers have chosen to come to Denham Springs.”
Donna Jennings, director of Main Street Denham Springs, said Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who oversees tourism in Louisiana, has promoted visiting Louisiana sites for those who want to travel but for health safety reasons are staying close to their homes.
“Lt. Gov. Nungesser has worked closely with tourism officials through video chats and other ways of communication. He has shared a wealth of knowledge with us and we are using that information to advertise the great things that Denham Springs, especially the Antique Village, has to offer," Jennings said.
She added that local residents have also been supportive of the Antique Village.
“I think our citizens know how important the Downtown Historic District is to our city, and they have come down to shop in our stores and support our efforts,” she said.
Bye and Jennings said the merchants have taken steps to assure the safety of their customers and employees.
“Our merchants have followed the directions of Gov. John Bel Edwards," Bye said. "We have required our customers to wear masks, we have made sanitizers available in all the stores and we are asking our customers to observe social distancing. Some of our stores are even selling masks."
Bye said merchants are asking everyone who visits the stores to be considerate of others and to follow the instructions that have been given by health authorities and elected officials.
Bye said the greatest threat to continued success in the Antique Village is a return to the stay-at-home directions that were issued starting in March.
“The problem with stay-at-home is that we cannot make any money. It costs a store owner money to keep his or her doors open, and if no customers come, the owners are losing money. Our customers keep us in business, and if they choose not to come to the stores, then we can’t continue to do business,” Bye said.
He said a return to stay-at-home warnings could mean the permanent closure of some of the businesses in the Antique Village.
The pandemic is the second shutdown of business in recent years.
“When the awful floods came in August of 2016, we knew what to do. As terrible as those times were, we all pitched in and we worked together to bring our city back to where it is today. But this virus threat is different because we just don’t know what to expect,” Jennings said.
Bye and Jennings are cautiously optimistic that the Downtown Historic District can hold the annual Fall Antique Festival, which is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 3. The district had to cancel the Spring Festival, and Bye said the merchants missed the opportunity to entertain the large crowds that visit the district during the festivals.
"Our festivals are very popular, and we attract as many as 10,000 visitors. We have more than 100 vendors who come here for the festival, and they also look forward to this opportunity to sell their products. If we have to cancel the Fall Festival, this will really be a blow to our merchants and the vendors,” Bye said.
He said a decision about the festival will have to be made by the first week in September.
“Much planning goes into the festivals, and we have to let our merchants and the vendors know in advance whether or not we will be able to host the festival. As much as we want to have the festival, we will do what is right at that time and will abide by whatever direction we get from Mayor Gerard Landry’s office," Bye said. "The last thing we want to do is jeopardize the health of our merchants and the visitors who fill the streets of the Antique Village during our festivals. Above all, we want to do the right thing."
Landry said he applauds the merchants who have been creative enough to keep their businesses going during the pandemic.
"I know that some of them are using Facebook and other online communications systems to sell their merchandise, and some are using techniques such as delivering items to customers who remain in their vehicles," Landry said. "I am especially proud of these folks. … They are doing a great job of helping to keep this vital part of our city alive.”
Landry said the Old City Hall Museum is open and visitors are welcome. The museum is observing safety practices and is closely monitoring the number of visitors who can be in the facility at a given time. The museum is authorized to accept 50% of its usual capacity. The museum attracts visitors and offers the only public restrooms in the Antique Village.
Looking further ahead, Jennings said it is her hope that Christmas in the Village will not have to be canceled.
“Christmas in the Village has become one of the absolute best things that we do in Denham Springs. We start with activities on the Friday after Thanksgiving and there is something going on just about all the time until Christmas," Jennings said. "For the past 17 years, Christmas in the Village has been a very special time in our city. A number of organizations in the city come together to support Christmas in the Village and if we have to cancel those events, it will be a huge disappointment to many, especially the children in the community. Let’s just hope that the threat of the virus is over by then."