In late March as Bridget Krage O’Connor looked out the windows of O’Connor Connective in downtown De Pere, she was sad to see no action whatsoever on Main Avenue.
“I was wondering about the faces behind those storefronts, knowing most were closed and had no idea when they might reopen,” says O’Connor, adding that since she lived nearby, she came into the office to work while her employees were set up to work remotely. “We were able to continue our work and I started to think about what we could do to help those places shut down.”
That reflection led to the launch of Downtown Faces Forward, a campaign to shine a light on the people who own downtown businesses and share their stories. The initiative first rolled out in De Pere and Green Bay at the end of April before coming to Appleton and Neenah in May. While O’Connor didn’t expect the initiative to last longer than a couple of months, it continues as the ongoing pandemic still affects businesses.
“When we started out, the idea was to capture this short window of time and then things would go back to normal,” she says. “This is still something we’re living with.”
To get the program off the ground, O’Connor’s team identified business owners willing to share their stories of fortitude during the pandemic. O’Connor Connective then connected with photographers interested in capturing the owners’ images on a pro bono basis. Photographers from Appleton, De Pere and Green Bay donated their time to capture the portraits of the downtown business owners.
To share the owners’ stories, O’Connor Connective created pages on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. “When we launched our (Facebook) page, we saw the number of followers go from five to 10 to 20 and it really took off,” says O’Connor, adding that as of early October, the page had 1,753 followers. “It’s wonderful to see people have such an interest in their downtown communities. The posts receive great comments. It’s been a fulfilling project.”
More than 80 businesses have been featured in Downtown Faces Forward since its launch and O’Connor has a plan for all of the photos and stories once the pandemic has passed and people can gather together again: “I would love to see all of these photos and articles in a gallery. It would be such a powerful exhibit about what we’ve overcome.”
If the pandemic has one positive effect, O’Connor says it’s that consumers are paying more attention to supporting local businesses.
“We’ve really learned we’re all in this together and have seen the challenges facing small businesses, and people are trying to support local businesses when they can.”