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The long road back

They had endured the worst economic storm Ashland had seen in several lifetimes, a lockdown that made the exchange of goods and services nearly impossible and a global panic that scared away loyal customers even after “closed” signs flipped to “open.”

And when the Ashland small-business owners interviewed for this series were asked to look ahead to what may come next, their answers were inexorably tied to another question, the one being asked in every boutique, gift shop, bar, motel, hotel, office, waiting room and break room from Exit 19 to Exit 14: What if?

Those who can’t fill in the rest of that query likely don’t know what it’s like to bind their livelihood to a single entity, even one that’s been a rock of consistency for 85 years and purports to have had a $120 million statewide economic impact in 2019. Yes, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the tentpole around which Ashland’s economy is built, which is why the thought of another late start or even canceled season in 2021 is enough to make a small-business owner squirm in their seat.

So, what if OSF doesn’t come back in 2021?

“Don’t say that,” said Bloomsbury Books co-owner Sheila Burns with an anxious laugh.

“Don’t ask a question like that,” said Corbet Unmack, co-owner of the Arden Forest Inn.

Oberon’s Restaurant and Bar owner Andy Card’s answer is more complete, but no more reassuring for those in his line of work. While he’s confident that he probably won’t “exit” Oberon’s, he knows it’s possible, especially if OSF shuts down its entire 2021 season and the federal government decides against launching more aid programs. But even if that worse-case scenario doesn’t come to fruition, Card believes Ashlanders who expect a business-as-usual hometown by late summer or early fall are in for a rude awakening.

“So we are going to start seeing this over the next six months, more businesses that are either shutting their doors or are just going up for sale,” he said. “I would prefer that these guys go up for sale and get something instead of just leaving, but I think this is what you’re going to see. ... If OSF doesn’t open until May or June of 2021 then that will accelerate people not having the financial resources to stay alive until OSF starts.

“I worry about the people who have their whole life savings in their one business, and they are in debt. I’ve seen the emotional desperation.”

Those who fit that description but also support safety measures designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 could see one stressor working against another come next spring, when OSF makes its decision regarding whether to reopen for business. Ultimately, it may not have a choice in the matter — Oregon’s current restrictions are what led to OSF’s 2020 shutdown — but local business owners would do well to prepare for another slow spring given OSF acting Executive Director Paul Christy’s approach to the issue.

It’s been a difficult time for everybody at the festival, he said, because they’re unable to do the job for which they’ve worked so hard: put on a fabulous show. However, he added, safety comes first, and there’s simply no way to social distance in a crowded theater and still turn a profit.

“So, we want to make our patrons safe, and just as important our backstage areas are very close,” he said. “Behind the Elizabethan (Theatre), there may be 15 feet of space to work with. So we know that any performance we put on means actors in close quarters. We don’t want those actors to come back until it’s safe to do so. That’s our big guiding rule, and what we’re hearing more and more from epidemiologists is either an antiviral or a vaccine must be in wide use. Whether that’s spring of next year or a little bit later, we’ll ride that and pay attention to it.

“Meanwhile, we’re making sure that we’re doing the work to keep the theaters running and in good shape and everything safe. But we’re not going to come back to the stage until the scientists tell us it’s safe to do so.”

Paddington Station co-owner Pam Hammond is more optimistic than most. Some days are better than others, she says, but by about the midway point of June business was down 60% from where it normally would be this time of year.

“It’s a victory, and I’ll take it,” she said. “Eventually, I’ll need to pay for more product, but the sales that are coming in right now are covering my overhead and my employees, and that’s a victory.”

If the virus surges in the fall, as has been predicted, and Gov. Kate Brown responds with another round of executive orders, Hammond says she’d maintain 50% staffing and set her sights on the holiday season. That’s the offseason for OSF anyway, she noted, and is traditionally Paddington Station’s best time of year for business.

“I am confident that unless we have to close our doors, we can have a strong November and December,” Hammond said.

Still, much of those hopes will depend on the comfort level of potential customers, many of whom are still wary of indoor spaces. To that end, Hammond hopes that city leaders do what they can to bring customers back to Ashland. She already has a pretty good pitch in the holster.

“(People) will want to get away for a few days, and why not come to a place where you can walk through a beautiful park, have a lovely place to eat, and maybe go hiking or some other activity that you might like to do,” Hammond said. “I think the wineries are all up and running or getting there, so there are lots of things you can do to social distance here if we can just promote them. In the spring, you may not be able to go to OSF, but hopefully the Cabaret will still be open and you can have a great evening there.”

To Burns, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival represents a special place in her heart. She moved here when she was 25 because she loved the arts, wanted to live in town that held the arts in high regard and, yes, adored OSF.

“But there are other things about Ashland, I think, that are drawing people,” she said.

As an example, she shared the story of two couples she met in mid-June. They were visiting Ashland not to catch a show, but to visit the wineries and to bike and walk the trails. She’s also hopeful that Ashland’s Summer Celebration Series, a three-month series of themed weekend events organized by the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, will be well attended and give the business community a much-needed shot in the arm.

A Fourth of July celebration was held last weekend — Friday, Saturday and Sunday — and this weekend’s theme is “In Full Bloom,” a flowers, garden and farms twist. Restaurants can place tables and musicians in parking places and still leave enough room to social distance, while sidewalk sales and other pop-up events are expected to create a sort of fair quality in the Plaza.

Burns believes the Summer Celebration Series could be a big hit.

“Especially if we could get the restaurants to have outdoor cafes,” she said. “People feel more comfortable eating outdoors. You could have a band in the Plaza. Oh, gosh, I love it. I think it could change the town, give it something else besides the festival.”

For some, however, the Shakespeare Festival is absolutely essential. That’s why even if the Summer Celebration Series attracts scores of people from throughout the Rogue Valley, as the chamber hopes, Arden Forest Inn owners Unmack and William Faiia know that success probably won’t translate into bed and breakfast customers.

Instead, they’re planning to promote the Arden Forest Inn as a safe getaway for folks from outside the area ready to stretch their legs after the long quarantine. Tapping into a customer base that goes deeper than OSF will probably be necessary, says Unmack, who predicts that even if OSF does reopen in 2021, it’ll likely be a down year.

Though they’re unlikely to capitalize on the Summer Celebration Series, Unmack and Faiia understand the draw and may have even let a touch of envy creep into their voices as they talked about it possibly improving “the mood” of Ashland. As members of that high-risk demographic, they are unlikely to make an appearance. Accustomed to sitting around a crowded table that seats 12 and discussing with their guests the previous night’s play over breakfast, Unmack and Faiia have learned to accept their isolation, if not embrace it.

“We have not had any social interaction since this has started — just my mom who lives around the corner, and that’s it,” Unmack said. “I can’t really say that I’m sitting here and actively missing it, and yet I know I am. I know that you want to be able to hear the buzz in a restaurant or talk to friends or go for a walk and not have to cross the street when you see somebody walking toward you. It’s just surreal.”

One day in early June, Ashland was hit with a drive-by rainstorm that unloaded for a few minutes before bolting as suddenly as it had appeared. The next morning, Unmack walked out into the Arden Forest Inn’s well manicured yard, which he’d been tending himself after letting the landscapers go — one of many cost-cutting moves — and was shocked to see a massive branch lying on the ground just a few feet beyond the back door.

He spent the rest of the day cutting up the branch with a chain saw. Hard work, especially for a man barely four months removed from major back surgery. After everything Unmack and Faiia had already gone through, and considering the long, hard trek that surely lies ahead, a little self-loathing was certainly in order. Maybe a lot. But where others may have seen only despair, Unmack instead was struck with the absurdity of it all. Like Hammond and her computer hack, and Burns driving up Mount Ashland to deliver a book, sometimes laughter is the only appropriate response.

“It’s like, what else can possibly go wrong?” Unmack said, trying and failing to hold in a mischievous smile.

“I shouldn’t really be saying this, but what we need right now is a really good, big earthquake.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Front of Bloomsbury Books Thursday.{ }Andy Atkinson / Ashland Tidings
Pam Hammond makes her way to the upper level of Paddington Station Thursday.{ }Andy Atkinson / Ashland Tidings