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A closed highway and a ‘mad dash’ to e-commerce: Here’s how one New Jersey Main St. is preparing to reopen

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Somerville’s Division St., a usually bustling pedestrian street, pictured from Main Street. In the front of the image is a sign for Somerville’s weekly cruise nights, which are “on hiatus due to Covid-19.” June 9, 2020.

Will Feuer

Somerville, New Jersey has enjoyed a rising tide in recent years.

Main Street is usually bustling, drawing crowds of thousands through the spring and summer with events like the annual Central Jersey Jazz Festival and weekly cruise nights, when classic cars line the street.

Within the borders of the town’s 2-square miles, about 12,000 people live, enjoying a boom in both commercial and residential development that has attracted younger residents and new businesses to the active commuter town. There’s a communal atmosphere to the Somerset County town, Mayor Dennis Sullivan said, that stands in stark contrast to just a few years ago, when empty storefronts dotted the town’s main thoroughfare.

“Five years ago, it was a ghost town,” Sullivan said, attributing the turnaround to public and private investment. “A lot of those upper-story apartments are full now, where they were cobwebs just a few years ago.”

Iris Frank, co-owner of Village Brewing, cited the “comeback” of the town as “the reason why we picked Somerville” a little over a year ago when she and her brother opened the brewery. Now, the coronavirus pandemic and New Jersey’s stringent response to it threatens to disrupt the town’s upswing and the businesses tethered to it.

New Jersey has endured one of the most restrictive responses to the virus in the country. Gov. Phil Murphy announced Tuesday he would lift the stay-at-home order that was put in place on March 21. But many businesses will remain closed at least until the state enters its next phase of reopening on Monday.

Businesses deemed nonessential have already faced more than 12 weeks of closure and expect more weeks ahead of low revenue as stores just partially reopen to comply with social distancing requirements. As New Jersey finally paves a path forward, business owners and local officials are gleaning lessons from other states that have already reopened on how to do so safely while balancing the economic needs of the community. 

Friday night crowds are ‘all gone’

Village Brewing in Somerville, New Jersey, closed on March 16. Since then it’s been surviving on takeout and delivery orders, which are about 10% of usual business.

Will Feuer

“I’m here on a Friday night and I look out the window at six, seven o’clock, where the streets would be teeming with people who are enjoying the evening, from the folks on a date night to families just coming to get ice cream and strolling and looking at the classic cars,” Frank said. “That’s all gone.”

On May 29, Frank stood outside her business as a sparser crowd than usual, most wearing masks, strolled down the street. The crowd, which Frank said has been steadily growing in recent weeks, pales in comparison to the numbers Somerville usually draws during its busy spring season, but it’s a sign of hope for Frank that her customers might return for the summer.

Frank said she celebrated the one-year anniversary of her brewery’s opening in April with her business closed, like thousands of others on Main Streets across the country.

Somerville has reported 137 confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of Friday, and six people have died of the disease, according to data compiled by Somerset County. But New Jersey, particularly the northern part of the state near New York City, has endured the second worst coronavirus outbreak in the country, with more than 166,166 confirmed cases and at least 12,490 deaths caused by Covid-19 as of Friday.

While some other states began to allow outdoor dining and retailers to reopen with limited capacity a month ago, New Jersey’s restrictions still only allow for curbside pick-up statewide. In early June, Murphy announced that the state will allow outdoor dining and for retailers to reopen with 50% capacity on Monday, about three months after Frank closed Village Brewing. 

Trouble on Main Street

Somerville’s Main Street on June 2. A sign posted to the lamp post from the Downtown Somerville Alliance advertises curbside pickup and takeout.

Downtown Somerville Alliance

The long-term economic effects of the coronavirus restrictions remain unclear. So much is unknown about the virus, the disease it causes and how it spreads, all of which could impact how states ease restrictions. While researchers study the nature of the virus, bills are piling up for small businesses like Frank’s and the extended suspension of business threatens to throttle the local economy.

Village Brewing has been surviving by selling takeout food and growlers of beer since it closed on March 16, Frank said, adding that sales are down more than 90% compared with last year. She said she’s partnered with food delivery company DoorDash, which has helped.

We would be naive to think that any of us, or any district, no matter where you are in the country, is going to come out of this situation completely unscathed.

Natalie Pinero

Executive director, Downtown Somerville Alliance

She also received a loan from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, which will help her weather the storm and pay her 40 employees. But she still has no idea when her business might be able to return to any semblance of normal operations.

She’s been looking at restaurants and eateries in places like Texas and Georgia that have been allowed to reopen, she said, and looking for smart ways to reduce the risk of infection. Village Brewing has a massive 17,000-square-foot, two-floor space, which will help with social distancing, she said, but one thing she’s seen from other states is that outdoor space is key to reopening. 

Natalie Pinero, executive director of the Downtown Somerville Alliance, said she’s not sure all businesses can take much more of a sustained shutdown. 

“We would be naive to think that any of us, or any district, no matter where you are in the country, is going to come out of this situation completely unscathed,” she said. “I think that there is a genuine concern for our businesses, for our small businesses.”

The DSA has been trying to help local shops survive the hiatus and prepare for reopening, however it could look, Pineiro said. For starters, the organization has been working with shops to revamp their online presence.

‘Mad dash’ online

A sign posted on Somerville’s Main St. on June 9, lays out precautions meant to reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19. Signs on businesses and traffic lights along the street tell pedestrians that masks are required in downtown Somerville.

Will Feuer

The organization launched an initiative called Somerville at Home, a website that provides guidance to the public about which businesses are open for take-out services. It doesn’t just include restaurants. For example, Nailed It, a do-it-yourself workshop on Main Street, has started to offer “make-and-take craft projects,” Pineiro said, where customers pick up supplies from the store and can tune into live-streamed instructions on how to construct the project. 

Somerville has a variety of new and old businesses, some that have been online from the start and others that are just now leaning into e-commerce, Pineiro said.

“A lot of these small businesses are not set up for e-commerce or were not set up for e-commerce, so it was a mad dash once this happened to get people up to speed,” she said. “Still there are some people that aren’t completely set up for e-commerce.

But online sales only go so far, especially considering so many Somerville businesses, like Carol’s Creative Chocolatez, which normally hosts regular artisanal chocolate tastings, are designed for an in-person and often communal experience, Pineiro said. To stir some excitement about shopping safely again, Somerville officials and the Downtown Alliance are petitioning the state to close Main Street, a state-owned highway, to traffic on at least some days every week. 

A musician performs at the 2019 Central Jersey Jazz Festival in Somerville, New Jersey. This year’s festival, which always takes place in Somerville, is slated for Sept. 11 to 13 and it has yet to be officially canceled.

Downtown Somerville Alliance

The town is hoping to hear back from the state this week, Pineiro said.

Closing Main Street and giving shops some space would be the safest way to bring customers back, and could help protect businesses in the future if the county sees a surge in cases again, as some states that were among the first to reopen have.

Closing streets to traffic

“Our retail businesses can bring out tables of products so that people can feel safe and shop outdoors instead of crowding indoors,” she said. “And the same thing with our dining.”

Some research, which has been endorsed by the White House, has shown that the virus doesn’t spread as easily outdoors and in direct sunlight. Cities beyond Somerville and across the country are now trying to find more space for restaurants and businesses that can move outdoors during the summer.

It’s far from the ideal summer season for businesses, Pineiro said.

“It’s certainly damaging to the momentum to have something like Covid happen and really set us back,” Pineiro said. “You’re talking about people that put their blood, sweat and tears and made sacrifices to be a part of Main Street.”

Somerville’s not shy of shutting streets to traffic to benefit its pedestrians. In 2012, the town invested more than $400,000 in converting Division Street, perpendicular to Main Street, into a pedestrian street. Sullivan said the project, which began as a one-year pilot, has been a rousing success, drawing customers from throughout the region to the town’s businesses. 

Somerville’s Division St., pictured before the coronavirus pandemic, on one of the town’s themed weekly festivals. These celebrations can draw thousands in the spring and summer. The business community hopes to replicate the pedestrian street on Main St. to revive businesses while preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Downtown Somerville Alliance

A threat to Somerville’s businesses is a threat to the municipal budget, local schools and basic public services, Sullivan said. He added that there’s no corporate presence along any of the surrounding highways, so an unusually large portion of Somerville’s tax revenue comes straight from Main Street.

It’s too early to determine whether spending cuts will be necessary, he said, adding that the current and most affected tax period ends in August. He said the borough has a surplus, but he’s hesitant to tap it unless absolutely necessary and the same goes for borrowing funds. 

“If I had a crystal job, well, I could do this job forever,” he said. “But it doesn’t come with a script and it doesn’t come with a Ouija board. It comes with a lot of planning and a lot of self confidence that you’re making the right decision, but we won’t know until we’ve gone through at least another tax cycle.”

‘Worse than Sandy’

Rick St. Pierre, who has owned the Verve restaurant and bar for 24 years, said closing off Main Street for just pedestrians would go a long way in helping to revive business and restore consumer confidence in town. At the very least, he said, it would test the waters of how to do business while the virus is still circulating.

The bar at Verve in downtown Somerville, New Jersey in pre-Covid times. Rick St. Pierre, who has owned the restaurant for 24 years, is now busy installing a plastic divider between the bartender and patrons’ seats.

Downtown Somerville Alliance

In the meantime, however, he’s preparing to reopen with limited capacity and safety modifications.

He’s ordering Verve-branded face masks and stocking up on plastic face shields for further protection. A plastic divider will separate the bartender from customers and he’s figuring out how to install dividers between tables, which will be set six feet apart, he said. But the necessary modifications could be so burdensome that it’s not even worth it to reopen, he added.

“White table dining is all about floor space,” he said. “With 25% or even 50% limited capacity, restaurants will not be able to make money. What we’d be doing is paying our labor, paying our food, paying our utilities, and trying to pay back that debt service that was created in January, February, March and April, just because we’ve deferred payments.”

He said he’s confident that Somerville will bounce back. His restaurant has survived the 2008 financial crisis and Hurricane Sandy, which shut down utilities in town for weeks. He added that he’s learned to lean on the community and his network to survive crises like those, but Covid-19 is like nothing he’s seen before and he’s not sure younger less experienced business owners will make it.

“This is worse than Sandy, definitely, at least in my mind,” he said. “This is a different level. We have no control over this threat.”

Source: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/13/how-one-nj-main-street-reopens-as-coronavirus-rules-ease.html

Techcrunch

Political strategist turned tech investor Bradley Tusk on SPACs as a tool for VCs

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Bradley Tusk has become known in recent years for being involved in what’s about to get hot, from his early days advising Uber, to writing one of the first checks to the insurance startup Lemonade, to pushing forward the idea that we should be using the smart devices in our pockets to vote.

Indeed, because he’s often at the vanguard, it wasn’t hugely surprising when Tusk, like a growing number of other investors, formed a $300 million SPAC or special acquisition company, one that he and a partner plan to use to target a business in the leisure, gaming, or hospitality industry, according to a regulatory filing.

Because Tusk — a former political operative who ran the successful third mayoral campaign for Mike Bloomberg —  seems adept at seeing around corners, we called him up late last week to ask whether SPACs are here to stay, how a Biden administration might impact the startup investing landscape, and how worried (or not) big tech should be about this election. You can hear the full conversation here. Owing to length, we are featuring solely the part of our conversation that centered on SPACs.

TC: Lemonade went public this summer and its shares, priced at $29, now trade at $70. 

BT: They are down today last I checked. When you only check once in a blue moon, you’re like, ‘Hey, look at how great this is,’ whereas if, like me, you check me every day, you’re like, ‘It lost 4%, where’s my money?’

We got really lucky; Lemonade was our second deal that we did out of our first fund, and the fact that it IPO’d within four years of the company’s founding is pretty amazing.

TC: Is it amazing? I wonder what it says about the common complaint that the traditional IPO process is bad — is it just an excuse?

BT: [CEO] Daniel Schrieber was very clear that he and [cofounder] Shai Wininger had a strategy from day one to go public as quickly as they possibly could, because in his view, an IPO is supposed to represent kind of the the beginning. It’s the ‘Okay, we’ve proven that there’s product market fit, we’ve proven that there’s customer demand; now let’s see what we can really do with this thing.’ And it’s supposed to be about hope and promise and future and excitement. And if you’ve been a private company for 10 years, and you’re worth tens of billions of dollars and your growth is already starting to flatten out a little bit, it’s just much less exciting for public investors.

The question now for everyone in our business is what happens with Airbnb in a few weeks or whenever they are [staging an IPO]. Will that pixie dust be there, or will they have been around so long that the market is kind of indifferent?

TC: Is that why we’re seeing so many SPACs? Some of that pixie dust is gone. No one knows when the IPO window might shut. Let’s get some of these companies out into the public market while we still can?

BT: No, I don’t I don’t think so. I think SPACs have become a way to raise a lot of money very quickly. It took me two years to raise $37 million for my first venture fund, and three months was the entire process for me to raise $300 million for my SPAC. So it’s a mechanism that is highly efficient and right now is so popular with public market investors that there is just a lot of opportunity, and people are grabbing it. In fact, now you’re hearing about people who are planning SPACs having to pull [them] back because there’s a ton of competition right now.

At the end of the day, the fundamentals still rule. If you take a really bad company public through a SPAC, maybe the excitement of the SPAC gets you an early pop. But if the company has neither good unit economics nor high growth, there’s no real reason to believe it will be successful. And especially for the people in the SPAC, where they have to hold on to it for a little while, by the time the lockup ends, the world has probably figured out that this is not the greatest IPO of all time. You can’t put lipstick on a pig.

TC: You say you raised the SPAC very quickly. How is the investor profile different than that of a typical venture fund investor?

BT:  The investors for this SPAC — at least when I did the roadshow, and I think I did 28 meetings over a couple of days — is mainly hedge funds and people who don’t really invest in venture at all, so there was no overlap between my [venture fund] LP base and the people who invested in our SPAC that I’m aware of. These are public market investors who are used to moving very quickly. There’s a lot more liquidity in a SPAC. We have two years to acquire something, but ultimately, it’s a public property, so investors can come in and out as they see fit.

TC: So it’s mostly hedge funds that are getting paid management fees to deploy their capital in this comparatively safe way and that are getting interest on the money invested, too, while it’s sitting around in a trust while [the SPAC managers] look for a target company.

BT: Why it kind of does make sense for [them to back] VCs is they are basically making the bet to say: does this person running the SPAC have enough deal flow, enough of a public profile, enough going on that they are going to come across the right target? And venture investors in many ways fit that profile because we just look at so many companies before deploying capital.

TC: Do you have to demonstrate some kind of public markets expertise in order to convince some of these investors that you know what it takes to take a company public and grow it in the public markets?

BT: I guess. We raised the money, so I guess I passed the test. But I did spend a little under two years on Wall Street; I created the lottery privatization group of Lehman Brothers. And my partner [in the SPAC], Christian Goode, has a lot of experience with big gaming companies. But overall, I think that if you are a venture investor with a ton of deal flow and a good track record but very little or no public market experience, I don’t know that that would disqualify you from being able to rate a SPAC.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2020/10/20/what-bradley-tusk-sees-coming/

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Techcrunch

Watch GM unveil the $80,000 GMC Hummer EV right here

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GM just took the wraps off the Hummer EV and it looks great. The vehicle is coming to dealers in 2022, with pre-orders starting in 2021. You can watch the unveiling here.

The vehicle is detailed here. With 1,000 HP, 350 mile range, and autonomous drive modes, it’s an impressive vehicle though still significantly more than Tesla said the Cybertruck will cost.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2020/10/20/watch-gm-unveil-the-80000-gmc-hummer-ev-right-here/

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AOC aims to get out the vote by streaming Among Us with pokimane and HasanAbi

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We are about seven months into a pandemic and just two weeks from a presidential election. At this point, surprises are a dime a dozen. So it should feel very 2020 that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is about to stream Among Us, the hit game of 2020, on Twitch alongside mega-streamer pokimane and political analyst HasanAbi.

Ocasio-Cortez tweeted yesterday that she was looking for people to play the popular game with in an effort to get out the vote, noting that she’s never played before but that it looks fun.

Streamer pokimane, who has 6 million followers on Twitch and whose YouTube videos regularly see more than 1 million views each, responded to the tweet with a figurative raised hand.

HasanAbi, a very popular political commentator on Twitch, who has more than 380,000 Twitter followers, also chimed in to the conversation saying that they’re already making a lobby. It wasn’t long before Rep. Ilhan Omar raised her hand, too.

A good game of Among Us (imagine that someone mixed a fairly basic multiplayer video game with a murder mystery party) usually requires 10 players, so the other six players are still TBD. But the Verge reports that a handful of other streamers (such as DrLupo, Felicia Day, Greg Miller, James Charles, and Neekolul) also lined up to play with AOC.

According to Ocasio-Cortez, the stream is all about getting out the vote. And this isn’t the first time that she’s used video games to connect with her followers. AOC opened up her DMs to all 6.8 million of her followers back in May to let them send her an invite to their island, and she visited them.

Millennial voters (and Gen Z) skew toward backing the Biden / Harris ticket, and AOC is coming to them by getting on Twitch and streaming one of the rocket ship games of this year.

The stream starts at 9pm ET/6pm PT and can be found here.

And you can check if you’re registered to vote here.

Update 9:01pm ET: AOC hasn’t even started playing the game yet and has nearly 250,000 concurrent viewers. 

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2020/10/20/aoc-aims-to-get-out-the-vote-by-streaming-among-us-with-pokimane-and-hasanabi/

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