Adobe Stock photo | The last year with COVID has been like a roller coaster ride, marked by sharp rises in unemployment, a soar in demand for new houses and remodeling, and for many – but not all – business owners, a prolonged period of decreased revenue. “Cautiously optimistic” is what some say they’re feeling at last as the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to fall and the economy slowly improves.
by CHRIS BURRITT
NW GUILFORD - A young family who bought a new house from builder Ray Bullins in 2019 circled back a year later at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak. As a result of public health precautions, both parents worked from home and their two children were attending school remotely.
The family contacted Bullins last March and called back urgently in August. "We're out of space and all over the top of each other," the builder recalled them saying. They hired him to convert unheated space in their Stokesdale home for work and study.
Remodeling a house that's only a year old isn't common. But the past year has been anything but ordinary as the coronavirus has created a roller coaster for business owners in northwestern Guilford County. Recently, the outlook has brightened with the growing availability of vaccines.
"I can see momentum," said Bill Stork, who owns Summerfield's Blissful Art & Framing with his wife, Amanda. "People seem a little more optimistic."
Even so, North Carolina's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate since last year illustrates the up-and-down economy, with a pre-COVID jobless rate of 3.5 % in January 2020 surging as high as 13.5 % last April and May. Since then, it's steadily declined to 5.9 % in January, according to the latest report by the state's Department of Commerce.
Despite the improving rate, nearly 118,000 more North Carolinians were unemployed in January than a year earlier.
Since the couple bought the art and framing store in Summerfield Square shopping center last June, they've broken even most months. "March has been really, really good," said Stork, who credits the improving COVID-19 outlook along with changes in the business.
In January, he erected a new sign over the entrance, making it clear that the store provides custom framing, its most profitable service. He replaced framed art on the back wall with displays of actual pieces of framing to showcase that part of the business.
Stork credits the changes to an uptick in repeat framing orders and first-time customers toting "art that had been rolled up in tubes for years."
As long as business continues improving, Stork said he may expand hours and is exploring the possibility of offering art classes taught by Greensboro watercolorist Ken Hobson, one of several artists selling their work in the store.
"I think people are ready to get out," Stork said. "They're feeling better about the state of things. They're willing to take a little bit of risk."
Not all changes by businesses have been as visible as hanging a new sign.
Summerfield's Priority Payments East has set up contactless payment systems for companies increasingly reliant upon virtual transactions instead of dealing with customers face to face.
"We spent a lot of time serving existing clients," said Terri Hawkins, who operates Priority Payments East with Peggy Scott. As an example, they've taught companies how to put a payment link on their websites and send emails with invoices.
"It's taken a lot of energy and work," said Hawkins. "It's been a hard year."
Over the past year, Tessa Clemencia has moved her women's clothing business, Love Ava Boutique, strictly online. She uses her former storefront at the corner of Summerfield and Pleasant Ridge roads in Summerfield as a warehouse for shipping orders. She also runs another business, Clemencia Cleaning Crew, from the space.
Clemencia's duties vary: packing and shipping orders, modeling new clothing on Love Ava's Facebook page and occasionally helping her crews clean houses and businesses. After she closed the store, she got more involved with the cleaning business, boosted her crew from two to nine workers and increased her number of vehicles from one to three.
As people have spent more time at home, they're paying more attention to cleaning, Clemencia said. Some would prefer to hire cleaners to do the work for them, creating an opportunity for her company.
"I decided to work a little harder and keep going," she said. "Running my business and not quitting has been a blessing."
For real estate agents, the onset of the pandemic last spring resulted in a temporary ban on open houses, curtailing strong activity fueled by historically low mortgage rates. As restrictions eased, the return of buyers to the market fueled sales despite a shortage of houses, especially moderately priced ones.
The "very slim" inventory of houses is spurring buyers' demand for "pre-sales," or custom-built houses, said Betty Smith, president of Smith Marketing Inc., which recorded record sales of about $155 million last year, up from $150 million in 2018.
Even now, COVID-19 is weighing on the supply of houses for sale. Smith said some homeowners are reluctant to list their houses because they don't want prospective buyers walking through them.
An influx of newcomers from urban areas is increasing demand for houses in northwestern Guilford County, according to Ray Bullins, the builder.
He's built seven houses over the past year while taking on seven remodeling projects.
"The remodeling business is booming," he said. "People working from home have come to the realization that if they're going to be there, they may as well make it as nice as they can."