With the Coronavirus Taking its Toll on the Downtown, the Business Improvement District Team Steps Up
Ask most merchants in the downtown, and they’ll tell you that their special marketing organization – the Business Improvement District – has been fairly quiet over the years. Yes, they were behind the signs that covered the windows of vacant stores with bright scenes of happy shoppers, and they organized the Giralda Under the Stars monthly musical events, and they maintained a website and e-newsletters promoting stores in the area bound by Douglas and Le Jeune roads on the east and west, and by Aragon and Andalusia avenues north and south.
But outside of that, the organization’s staff pretty much stayed in their second-story offices at the intersection of Ponce and the Mile. That is all changing, and dramatically so. With new board members coming on last year, and a vibrant new executive director this year, the BID is on a tear to make a difference for the beleaguered downtown.
“We see this time as a renaissance, a rebuilding from the inside out,” says Jill Hornik, the volunteer vice president of the BID’s board and one of the co-members of its marketing committee. “Unfortunately, this is happening at the same time as the pandemic. But we want to make it easier for businesses to get through that, too.”
Hornik is herself a merchant with skin in the game; her family has owned and operated Jae’s Jewelers on Miracle Mile for 75 years. The same goes for her marketing co-chair Catalina Perez, who operates the downtown design and marketing firm Inkberries. “In January there was a kind of opening of the curtains of what we were about, what the purpose of the BID was,” says Perez, who joined the BID board last year. “That brought about a big change.”
One of the biggest changes was the hiring of Aura Reinhardt as the new executive director of the BID. An aggressive and dynamic personality with decades of experience in national brand marketing, Reinhardt has made an immediate impression. “The new person they have for the BID [Reinhardt] has been fantastic,” says Stephanie Cheung, the owner of Stephanie’s Crêpes on Galiano Street. “She has already come here twice, and she helped me get my permit for outdoor seating. The old BID? I got lost by the wayside.”
The imperative to visit every retailer in the BID’s area was first on Reinhardt’s agenda. “The most important thing for me was that the BID has not had a face with its members,” she says. “Going out and spending time meeting people and finding out what is going on in their world [is what we needed]. It’s too easy to sit at a desk. We needed to get the feedback and hear what was important to them.”
Reinhardt’s arrival, plus the newly energized marketing team of Hornik and Perez, is already paying off with a slew of new programs to help local merchants. Among them are:
- The immediate distribution of 5,000 face masks to retailers, so that no customer had to be turned away for lack of facial covering.
- A pro-bono program with veteran marketer Gabriella Reyes of Brandvelop to work with 15 merchants to revamp their marketing outreach.
- A campaign to more effectively use social media micro-influencers to promote shopping and dining downtown.
- The creation of a marketing handbook for merchants, available online, detailing best practices and “walking retailers, step by step” through do-it-yourself marketing strategies.
- A new local loyalty program, Resorcity, launching this month as a digital app to reward shoppers and run promotions.
Beyond specific programs to help market merchants, however, is a new vision to promote downtown Coral Gables as an experience. “Our whole focus for the coming year is going to be more around what you can experience in the Gables,” says Hornik. “Right now, our website is ShopCoralGables[.com], but most people come here for other reasons, like dining.”
However, that is just the beginning. Among the planned experiences is an Art on the Mile program to install working artists in seven empty storefronts, so that people can interact with them. “So much of what we want people to do is come here and experience something new and different,” says Reinhardt. “With art we can give them that – especially if they see a man inside with his pottery wheel.”
Another initiative is a series of four large murals, scheduled to be painted this fall, in a program partnering with the city’s Economic Development Department. One is planned for the wall on the southwest intersection of Ponce and the Mile, two for “McBride Plaza” adjacent to Barnes and Noble, and a final one for the wall of the Miracle Theatre along Salzedo Street. The idea is to create compelling visuals, like the walls in Wynwood, “so that people will have somewhere to go and take a picture,” says Hornik, “so that other people will see it and say, ‘I want to go there.’”
Possibly the most exciting of such “experiential” projects is Illuminate Coral Gables, the brainchild of Venny Torre, the outgoing president of the BID and the current president of Illuminate’s board of directors. This ambitious project, backed now by $100,000 grants each from both the city and the BID, will light up buildings throughout the downtown with installations by nationally known artists. “The idea is to use light and technology to transform the city with public art that will become magical at night,” says Torre, not only putting the Gables on the national art map, but also drawing thousands of new visitors downtown.