Sunny Days of Ithaca and Home Green Home are shifting from one challenge to the next. The struggle between the local businesses and a proposed development that threatened to evict them has finally come to a close, but both must now fight for survival amid COVID-19 shutdowns.
The two stores had been locked in a months-long fight with Jeff Rimland, an Ithaca developer whose 215 Green Street development project would have built high-rise apartments in the place of their Rothschild building storefront.
But after months of attending Ithaca’s City Planning and Development Board meetings to protest the project, Sunny Days of Ithaca and Home Green Home have been promised their stores will be unaffected: Rimland announced that the project will be downsized and is no longer affecting the small businesses in the area.
The business owners claimed that the project developer had not informed them of their imminent displacement and that their landlord had failed to effectively communicate the plans for development.
Until recently, the board had simply promised to table a vote on the project until Rimland could demonstrate that he had worked with the businesses to mitigate the development’s impact.
But all the back-and-forth came to an abrupt end a few weeks ago when Rimland emailed Sunny Days of Ithaca and other affected businesses to notify them that the project was retreating from its previous plans.
“The next thing that I knew I got an email from him saying that he was pulling back and going back to the original design which would not displace us,” explained Deirdre Kurzweil, owner of Sunny Days of Ithaca, a boutique that sells Finger Lakes souvenirs.
Kurzweil speculated that the pandemic may have factored into Rimland’s decision to downsize the project and keep her business from being displaced.
“I have to guess that COVID had a role in it,” she said. “It wasn’t just that he was going to build this twice-as-big project because the two of us stood up and said ‘wait, what does this mean for us?’”
“I don’t think that’s what changed his mind,” Kurzweil continued. “But I have no way of knowing that.”
Rimland declined to comment on why the project had been modified.
But even with the threat of the project gone, Sunny Days of Ithaca and other local businesses are struggling during the coronavirus shutdown.
“We were just sort of frozen for a couple months while we were dealing with [the Rimland project], and then COVID-19 hit — so we just continue to be frozen,” Kurzweil explained.
For the last several weeks, Sunny Days of Ithaca has closed its store front and conducted business exclusively over the phone and online. Until recently, its website wasn’t used very often, so it still does not have all of their products available.
Luckily, the website does have puzzles, Kurzweil said, which are in “high demand” right now.
They have also made many other changes in an effort to keep the business running, including providing free local delivery and curbside pickups. This week they also created a safe zone in front of the store where people can shop while maintaining social distancing guidelines.
Ithaca is doing their best to find new ways to spur business without posing a health risk, including offering monetary grants to small businesses and incentivizing consumers to support local businesses.
Sunny Days of Ithaca is doing their best to adjust to the new guidelines without any precedent to go off of. Kurzweil admitted that “it’s hard to know what’s right,” when it comes to running their business during this pandemic.
In addition to altering their storefront, Kurzweil has been spending her days trying to apply for government grants aimed at keeping small businesses afloat.
“I’ve applied for everything I could possibly apply for in terms of financial assistance,” Kurzweil said. “But the little guys are getting pretty much screwed.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a grant program specifically aimed at small businesses, but Sunny Days of Ithaca wasn’t able to get any money from it.
“At 3 o’clock it went live and immediately crashed. I sat here all day long refreshing, refreshing, refreshing, and then around 7 or so the message was, ‘Sorry it’s all gone,’” Kurzweil said. “Myself and everybody I know attempted to apply for that, but I don’t know a single person that actually got through.”
There was also a local micro-loan program that Ithaca businesses hoped would give them some relief, but the large volume of applicants isn’t making Sunny Days of Ithaca too hopeful.
“They got 140 applications I heard. So I got in but I’m just one of the 140,” she said.
Still, Sunny Days of Ithaca will continue to provide the Ithaca community with puzzles and food as long as they can.
“We will be here for anybody who wants to take a safe stroll over,” Kurzweil said.