One year after shooting, Oregon District faces tough times

Many people hoped that 2020 would be a return to normalcy for the Oregon District — the beloved and bustling Dayton neighborhood ― after it was the site of one of the worst mass shootings in Ohio history one year ago.

But an unprecedented public health crisis that has unfolded this year might end up being one of the greatest challenges the district has ever faced.

Credit: Tom Gilliam

Credit: Tom Gilliam

Businesses there are struggling and face extraordinary economic pressure. Some have closed and others have been pushed to the brink of collapse.

The Oregon District businesses, residents and supporters displayed incredible grit after the mass shooting there on Aug. 4, 2019, and business owners say they are going to need the same qualities to make it through this trying time.

“Last year, we experienced a horrible emotional struggle. This year, due to the pandemic, we’re experiencing financial struggles,” said Tailor Curtis, social media manager of Heart Mercantile. “There’s a huge difference between the two, and both are hard, but we are one resilient city.”

Credit: Tom Gilliam

Credit: Tom Gilliam

After the tragedy

Business was understandably slow in the Oregon District after the shooting, with nightlife in particular taking a major hit, said Mike Handler, manager of Newcom’s Tavern in the Oregon District.

Some of the late-night crowd did not feel comfortable returning to the district right away. Some bars and clubs near the site of the shooting were noticeably less busy after the late-night shooting.

But after a couple slow months, people began to come back out in large numbers to support Newcom’s and other businesses, Handler said.

2020 started off strong, he said, and things seemed to be returning to normal when the pandemic struck.

Businesses are struggling — some more than others, Handler said. Newcom’s is doing its best to weather this crisis and make customers feel safe and comfortable with safety measures. Handler said he believes Newcom’s and the district have a bright future.

Not every business had the same experience after the tragedy.

Joe Bavaro, co-owner of Oregon Express, said the month after the shooting was one of the most successful Augusts the restaurant and bar has ever had because the community rallied to support the district’s business community.

“For the whole month of August, it was just I think how people should treat each other,” he said. “Everyone was kind, considerate, passionate, supportive. It was just really such a tragic, tragic thing to go through. But then afterward, you really saw the good and people kind of said, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together.’”

Couldn’t make it work

After the shooting, the community expressed an incredible and heartwarming outpouring of appreciation, said Natalie Skilliter, the owner of Corner Kitchen, an Oregon District restaurant.

Corner Kitchen had its busiest month in August 2019 in its five-year history, she said.

But she said the tremendous support wasn’t sustained, noting that her September and October sales were down year-over-year.

Corner Kitchen was doing fine leading up to pandemic. But once the state-ordered shutdowns hit, Skilliter said she could no longer make the math work.

The restaurant could not survive operating at 30% capacity while shouldering 100% of expenses, she said.

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Corner Kitchen tried to be a quick-service restaurant, but the volumes fell short of what was needed to scrape by.

In June, Corner Kitchen announced it was closing indefinitely, becoming another business casualty of the coronavirus. Other businesses across the region have shut down during the outbreak, including the Oregon Tails Pet Salon, a nearby dog grooming business on Wayne Avenue.

It’s a scary time for everyone in the Oregon District, Skilliter said, but she’s constantly surprised and inspired by the business community’s grit and ingenuity.

“We’re listening and learning from each other, we’re adapting our operations, everyone is working so hard,” she said.

Credit: Tom Gilliam

Credit: Tom Gilliam

The Oregon District is vulnerable to the economic hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic because it is a collection of small, independent businesses, said Guy Fragmin, owner of 416 Diner in the district.

Big chains and fast-food businesses generally have deeper pockets, he said, and many also have drive-thru windows.

“There are lines at their drive-thrus — they are not in trouble,” he said. “Your local independent businesses are struggling right now, which is everything in the Oregon District.”

The pandemic has affected every business, Fragmin said, but it has been uniquely hard on the Oregon District because it was the latest in a series of recent “gut punches,” including last year’s mass shooting and Memorial Day tornadoes.

“2021 can’t get here fast enough,” he said.

It’s not the same

Because of COVID-19, there is less foot traffic in the district and people aren’t hanging out and exploring like they usually would, said James Collins, owner of Gem City Tattoo Club, 426 E. Fifth St.

Now most district visitors have specific destinations in mind, he said, and then they usually head home, instead of strolling around looking for the next thing to do.

Collins said it’s unfortunate that just months after a terrible mass shooting, the district had to deal with a different kind of crisis that packed a powerful economic punch.

“We were walking around in a daze,” he said. “I don’t know that we really came out of the daze, and then suddenly the pandemic hit.”

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But he said once the pandemic is under control, life in the Oregon District should return to normal.

Businesses in the district are scrappy, Collins said, and he’s confident that most will find a way to survive.

“This is a cool place and it’s been a cool place for a long time,” he said. A virus, he said, is not going to change that.

The Oregon District business community is learning together how to deal with this unparalleled crisis and adapt to a new consumer landscape, said Amanda Hensler, co-owner of Heart Mercantile.

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Heart Mercantile maintains a loyal customer base, she said, and other district businesses also have faithful patrons and strong support.

“As many times as we’ve been knocked down, we just keep getting back up,” she said. “We are a close-knit community, and we try to look out for each other and support each other as much as we can.”

This is a worrisome time, but Hensler said the community can still support Oregon District business, no matter their comfort level during this health emergency.

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People have the option to eat, drink and shop at businesses, with some changes made for safety reasons.

If people aren’t comfortable doing that, she said, they can buy gifts cards or order online for pickup or delivery.

At 416 Diner, for example, people can sit down and eat inside if they want, Fragmin said, or visit the outdoor serving window and eat outside or get carryout or delivery.

Businesses are feeling somewhat grim, and sadly, some will close or scale back, said Kyle Babirad, president of the Oregon District Business Association.

But he said the spirit of the neighborhood remains strong.

“That doesn’t mean we’re going away — our energy will find a new outlet,” he said.

Credit: Tom Gilliam

Credit: Tom Gilliam

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