The city of Frostburg typically greets the season’s first snowflakes with amused resignation and a hidden thrill of excitement. Frostburg boasts “it’s just cooler here” for a reason; nestled in the rolling Allegany Mountains of Western Maryland, temperatures are regularly colder with higher snowfall and precipitation rates than the surrounding area. Winter in Frostburg means snow days for school children, cross-country skiers popping up downtown, and seasonal events like Storybook Holiday or the annual Cocoa Crawl. Turning the historic downtown into a winter wonderland helps support small businesses and injects needed revenue into the local economy.
This year, dropping temperatures and looming snow provide an additional concern that goes beyond slushy roads and the need for shovels and rock salt. Frostburg, which has been an outdoor haven for locals and visitors since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, has to move indoors. But Frostburg is ready, and has already taken significant steps to keep the community safe.
When the state stay-at-home order was lifted, the summer and fall seasons saw record numbers of visitors taking advantage of outdoor recreation opportunities in Allegany County such as the internationally known Great Allegheny Passage, along which Frostburg is a Trail Town. Local restaurants offered safe outdoor dining, the annual farmers’ market in the heart of downtown welcomed those wanting to support local farmers, and small, hybrid virtual/in-person outdoor events encouraged locals and visitors to support local businesses in a responsible, socially-distanced way.
During the first surge, many local restaurants offered discounted or free meals for struggling families, and some even donated meals to essential workers. Other small businesses and community members purchased catering to feed essential workers, and several businesses donated a percentage of sales to the local food bank. Frostburg businesses swiftly adapted to the community’s needs by changing their hours of operation, services, and even inventory.
“In this new retail world that small businesses are navigating, it’s not enough that I have the books that are on your shopping list, I also provide a space that is safe for both the customers and the booksellers,” says Fred Powell, owner of Main Street Books, which has been in business in downtown Frostburg for over 30 years. Speaking about the new challenges that small businesses face as a result of the pandemic, he shares, “The numbers in the store and encouraging social distancing, providing hand sanitizer stations, requiring masks for all as well as providing free masks for shoppers that may have come without one are all important things for today’s business owner to keep track of at all times.”
Some of the most problematic challenges small businesses have weathered include finding a balance in promotional activity to keep the community safe. Small businesses often count on holiday shopping, events, and special promotions to boost revenue and get through winter months that typically see less activity. Unfortunately, in response to the pandemic many events in downtown Frostburg were cancelled or shifted to virtual formats, significantly decreasing foot traffic to local businesses.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult on small businesses everywhere, and it is no different in Frostburg,” says Elizabeth Stahlman, Frostburg City Administrator. “With the pause of many of our tourism assets, including campus events and the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, our downtown was hit particularly hard. Yet, our businesses adapted and have shown incredible resiliency this year. The City has relied on its close partnership with FrostburgFirst, our Main Street organization, to communicate directly with our business community, especially in terms of timely information regarding the various grant opportunities. And although the City has not provided direct financial assistance to businesses, Allegany County will have allocated a significant amount of funding to our small businesses community, in addition to the federal relief programs available.”
Closing a small business, even temporarily, due to possible or confirmed COVID-19 exposure is a tremendous blow to businesses that are already experiencing drastic dips in revenue. In addition, in order to comply with CDC and state guidelines to provide a safe environment for customers, many businesses have incurred additional expenses. Local coffee shop and café Clatter closed and reopened, constructing an entirely new method of public interaction with separate order/pick-up windows. “It has definitely been a subject of conversation among local business owners,” shares owner Jon Felton. “We all want to do what’s best for our community and employees as we learn to survive in an increasingly bleak landscape. But those conversations are often fruitful. We figure out ways to guard against the carelessness of the minority and to honor and be there for the majority of customers, who are caring people of goodwill, who are really trying to support us.”
Several businesses have closed temporarily due to potential exposure or confirmed cases to have their spaces professionally sanitized, and clearly take their employees’ and customers’ safety seriously. Donald Carter, Jr. co-owner of Carter & Roque Realty and the multiple businesses located in the historic Hotel Gunter feels positively about the business community’s response. “Business owners have taken a proactive approach to the ever changing COVID climate. We have seen many businesses moving at least part of the business to take out and delivery. Many of us have closed down for some time in order to clean and sanitize.”
Frostburg has a long history of coming together as a community. A city that holds annual parades along its Main Street and engages with Frostburg State University and community organizations to hold volunteer clean-up events, the attitude of the small business community reflects the spirit of this rural mountain city. Frostburg has weathered many storms in its over 200 year history; from tornadoes to fires to the decline of the coal industry in the region.
“Our Frostburg community is amazing,” says Cindy Diamond, of McFarland Candies and The Goodfellow Agency, both multi-generational businesses with a long history in downtown Frostburg. “Businesses help businesses, and those shopping local now more than ever is awesome. Most everyone has been patient, kind and respectful. As we rally in our cold small town to survive…this is what sets us apart and makes it cooler here. It’s a community where people genuinely care about the well-being and good of others.”
Recently, downtown Frostburg received a cheerful holiday makeover thanks to the incredible parking meter decorations organized as part of Frostburg State University Children’s Literature Center’s annual Storybook Holiday event. Although the event shifted primarily to a virtual format, the “Deck the Meters” initiative resulted in over 70 downtown parking meters being decorated by local businesses, organizations, and community members, demonstrating just how creative Frostburg can be when it comes to making its residents feel at home.
Early in the pandemic, many rural areas, including Allegany County, experienced lower infection and hospitalization rates statewide and nationally. Increased access to testing, “COVID fatigue,” cooling temperatures, and the increase in holiday gatherings have contributed to more recent spikes or surges, putting a national spotlight on the area. However, Frostburg took actions early on to help stop the spread and adapt the business community to the demands of life during the pandemic.
Many community organizations have also had to develop new strategies for keeping reducing the spread of the virus. In March of 2020, Frostburg United Methodist Church closed its church building and moved to an entirely online worship service, later moving to an outdoor, socially distanced and mask-required worship service in June. “Individuals either remained in their vehicles, or brought their own lawn chairs and sat directly in front of their own vehicles while wearing masks,” shares Pastor Kyle Durbin. When Frostburg UMC returned to indoor worship, “pews were roped off in a manner that guaranteed a minimum of six foot social distancing at all time, reducing the sanctuary capacity to 25%. Tape was laid on the floor similar to other businesses, to provide an indicator of six foot spacing.” Other additional steps were taken to ensure the safety of attendees and the community, including continuing online services and an FM transmitter so that live service could be broadcast to the parking lot and surrounding neighborhoods.
Regarding the City’s response, Stahlman shares, “When the mask mandate was first instituted, the City worked to develop flyers and the Police Department visited every storefront in town to provide a poster for the window and information regarding mask wearing requirements. The City Police have responded and have been available to address any mask related issues, and the Chief of Police has regularly discussed the matter during public meetings. As the number of cases grew well above state averages in November and December, the City was pleased to hear that a state-run testing site was coming to the County. But, it was not in Frostburg, and not necessarily convenient.”
In an effort to help instill confidence in keeping Frostburg businesses open, the City of Frostburg has recently offered free COVID-19 testing in partnership with AEON Technologies to local businesses and their employees, as well as to essential workers. Mayor W. Robert Flanigan shares, “I am very thankful to our county commissioners for allowing the City of Frostburg to receive additional CARES money to provide free testing to our local business folks and their employees.” The first event, held on December 1, 2020, was successful with 83 people getting tested in a 2 hour window, with waits no longer than 15 minutes. Two more events are scheduled for December 18 and 30, 2020.
Frostburg’s state and nationally-accredited Main Street program, FrostburgFirst, also shifted gears to address the unique challenges presented by the pandemic. By adapting public events to a virtual format, organizing monthly online promotions with multiple businesses, and developing a mini-grant program to assist small businesses in making the transition to online sales and marketing, FrostburgFirst encouraged a “support local, safely” mentality. Currently, FrostburgFirst is preparing a second round of mini-grants to assist small businesses with operational expenses including rent, utilities, and payroll.
Frostburg, like many small cities around the country, may be experiencing higher infection rates and increased concern about spreading the virus. And yet, Frostburg continues to thrive. Perhaps it’s the long history of neighbors helping neighbors, the supportive small businesses that look out for each other or the sense of community that shared history and idyllic natural beauty engenders. Most likely? It’s all of the individuals striving in concert, fighting for each other, and collaborating to make a difference in their community that just makes Frostburg cooler.