Downtown St. Joseph is mostly empty Monday as many businesses remain closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

ST. JOSEPH — The St. Joseph City Commission took action Monday to help support downtown business owners as things start to open up in Michigan while the coronavirus remains active.

Acting on a recommendation from the Downtown Development Authority, which met by Zoom on Monday morning, the city commission approved plans to create a “virtual downtown,” and provide marketing videos and packages to the business owners.

Meeting Monday evening by Zoom, city commissioners heard about proposals from CrazeVR owner Mark Rutherford and Dave Holt from Holt Bosse that had been presented to the DDA.

Arthur Havlicek, executive director of the Southwest Michigan Regional Chamber, said consumer confidence will be a problem for tourism and business.

“If people don’t feel safe coming here, we’ll have the technology to bring downtown St. Joseph to them,” Havlicek said. “Businesses are in free fall, and this is a great way for the city to step in and provide a softer landing.”

CrazeVR, a local virtual reality gaming and entertainment business, will create the virtual tour, with the $10,500 delivery price to be paid by the City of St. Joseph. The marketing firm Holt Bosse will create a 2020 marketing plan called Lift Up Downtown. The cost for that, totaling $16,620, will be paid by the DDA from its reserve funds.

The virtual tour, which can be taken from a smart phone, iPad or computer, will take visitors on a stroll down State Street in St. Joseph, where visitors can then click on a specific store front to see hours, menus and other information. Businesses can buy in to include a virtual tour inside their store or restaurant. Purchasing can then be done online.

The cost to businesses for individual, inside tours of their business will be $300, discounted from the normal price of $500, Rutherford said. These individual tours are optional.

Mayor Mike Garey said that legally, the city cannot pay to support individual stores, but funding the virtual tour of the downtown is a way the city can support its merchants.

Holt Bosse’s Lift Up Downtown plan will include videos; an online hub where hours, phone numbers and pickup or delivery procedures will be organized in an easy-to-find, consistent manner; and a business packet that will provide helpful steps and information for stores that are not already equipped for online shopping.

Garey said the virtual tour created by CrazeVR and the marketing plan created by Holt-Bosse should be viewed not as competing, but as one package working together.

Havlicek agreed, saying, “CrazeVR and Holt Bosse will work hand-in-hand on this, and it will be a two-part approach to help the downtown businesses.”

Street dining

In a different but somewhat related matter, Community Development Director Kristen Gundersen brought to the city commission a proposal from DDA member Robert Montgomery, owner of 221 Main Restaurant & Cocktail House for outdoor street dining.

Montgomery recused himself from the DDA’s vote to bring the concept to the city commission.

Details need to be ironed out, but in general Montgomery’s proposal calls for creating the “Pleasant Street Plaza” for outdoor dining during weekends in warm weather. The plaza would be located between Main and Court Streets where there are currently two restaurants, 221 Main and Silver Harbor Brewery.

Temporary conversion of streets to outdoor public spaces for dining is being talked about in Michigan as a way to provide opportunities for businesses and residents, Gundersen said.

Montgomery said St. Joseph Today has agreed to provide event fencing for the two restaurants. He said the restaurants will need to acquire the appropriate permits and licenses from the state for street dining.

Pleasant Street would be closed off to vehicle traffic between Main Street and Court Street on Friday through Sunday, with restaurant seating areas being to the east and west of the north-south alley behind the post office.

The City Commission approved the plan and directed Montgomery to work with city staff to work out the details. Commissioners are excited about the idea. “This is a bright spot in an otherwise pretty dark time,” Commissioner Peggy Getty said.

Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter @HPSwidwa