by Carol J. Alexander
Less than 100 years ago, Quicksburg bustled at a quick pace. The railroad kept this town alive, bringing supplies and taking goods up and down the Valley. The village once included a blacksmith, tomato cannery, and general store. The town’s racetrack drew visitors from neighboring communities who probably enjoyed a few drinks in the saloon after the races were over. Now, the only thing left of Quicksburg is a post office, which the US Postal Service wants to close, and a Methodist church, congregation 20.
What happened to Quicksburg? I’m sure there are many answers to that question. Location off the Valley Pike, some say. Less frequent rail travel, say others. But I cannot help think that if Quicksburg had a Main Street, a thoroughfare along which the business district stretched, other than tracks, that it could have survived the demise of the railroad.
For some small towns, Main Street is all they have. For larger cities, Main Street is their calling card and a community all its own. But most folks would agree, the pulse of a town’s Main Street creates the heartbeat of the town.
The part of government
Valley citizens value their Main Streets so much they have formed downtown enhancement groups, Main Street committees, or business alliances for the merchants in the area.
Tracy Lyons, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce for Lexington, Buena Vista, and Rockbridge County said the county recently launched phase one of its 20/20 plan for revitalization. The first phase involves reaching out to alumni from local colleges and asking them to return to the area and invest in the community.
Craig Laird, owner of Royal Oak Computers and Shenandoah Confections and the president of the Front Royal Independent Business Alliance, said that the town of Front Royal just agreed to hire a community development director. “This position is an important piece to vitalization of the town overall,” he said.
Groups such as FRIBA and Main Street Lexington, Chambers of Commerce, and Rotary clubs provide networking opportunities for business owners and host events to draw folks to the Main Street area.
“Events are the key to get people out of their cars and start walking into businesses and seeing what the town has to offer,” said Charles Harbaugh IV, mayor of Middletown. He said that Middletown closes down the Main Street and re-routes traffic for special events.
Mike Good, owner of Timeless Wines in Middletown agrees. He regularly hosts wine and beer tastings at his shop to bring folks in.
“Events are effective in bringing people together,” said Robbie Jones of Hamrick and Sheridan Jewelers in Lexington. He said they not only attract shoppers to the district but provide networking opportunities for the business owners.
Live music, art shows, and heritage festivals are popular events hosted by towns up and down the Valley. The most popular, the Shenandoah County Department of Tourism’s Route 11 Yard Crawl is held each August along more than 40 miles of the Valley Pike. This event brings more folks to the Main Street sector than any other.
“Events give you the opportunity to talk to people and get to know your customers,” said Good.
More basic than events, though, a town needs to create a warm and inviting environment, said Jenna French, director of tourism and marketing for Shenandoah County. “From planters to lights to pocket parks,” she said, it’s all part of the plan to make visitors to downtown feel welcomed. Rodney Shepherd, Mt. Jackson town council member, agrees. “You need to keep the infrastructure and background in good shape,” he said. Mt. Jackson has worked tirelessly to upgrade its sewer system, lay new sidewalks, install lamp posts and more. The most talked about improvement has been repainting the water tower along Interstate 81, to the tune of $250,000. “It’s boring,” he said referring to infrastructure, “but it’s important.”
French said that some businesses in Woodstock have taken advantage of a façade grant program to fund improvements. She also said that it helps a town to capitalize on its historical charm.
Lyons concurs. Several of the businesses in downtown Lexington have worked diligently to restore their buildings, “recapturing what they used to be in their heyday.” One such business is the Robert E. Lee Hotel, built in 1926 and totally restored in 2014. And to call attention to the historic district of Middletown, Harbaugh co-authored the book Images of America: Middletown.
The part of the business owner
The onus is not on the town, though. When asked what the key to success is for small businesses the answers varied, but Chamber officials all agreed—a new business needs a viable business plan.
“Before opening the doors,” said Lyons, “have a positive business plan that meets the needs of the community.” Do your market research and be engaged with your customers to know what their needs are.
“A successful opening is very important,” she added. “Be ready. Don’t have a soft launch. Make a big deal of your opening by hosting an event. Use the Chamber; they will help you.”
Business owners, though, look past that initial plan with their advice.
“Be open,” said Good. “Have set hours and be consistent with them.” Jones agrees that you have to be there. “Don’t think you can just hire someone to man the store,” he said. “Your business needs your personal touch.”
French said it’s important not to operate just another store or place to eat lunch. “It takes creativity and ingenuity,” she said, “but you need to create a destination.”
Destinations are what young adults and families are looking for. Something to do on the weekend or the perfect place for a birthday dinner are a few things the younger generation looks for. “We need to get them excited about coming down,” said Jones, “because they are our future.” And what better way than showing them that we speak their language by being active online.
Of course, everyone agrees a successful business must have an online presence and be active on social media. And, of course, almost everyone struggles to make it happen.
“Eighty percent of Internet users are on their phones,” said Janet Michael of Java Media in Front Royal. A couple traveling through the area will turn to their phone to find a good place to eat. A mom uses her phone to find the closest toy store. Someone else looks up a place of business on his phone to get its hours. At the very least, a small business needs to have a Facebook page and be active on it. “Social media,” she said, “is almost, if not more important, than traditional advertising.”
But many business owners don’t know what to say or post on their Facebook or Twitter feeds. For that reason, Michael teaches social media management classes to small business owners. She tells them just to start a conversation and engage their followers.
The part of the consumer
Nurturing Main Streets of the Valley requires not just effort on the part of governments, organizations, and business owners, but also the consumer.
“Money spent at a local business stays in the community,” said Ralph Wakeman, owner of Shenandoah Sew and Vac in Woodstock. He encourages everyone to shop locally, visit the shops on Main Street, and ask questions.
Wakeman contends that the local shopkeeper, with his reputation on the line, will provide superior customer service to the big box stores and online retailers. “Who are you going to complain to and who is going to take care of you?” he asks, referring to his national competitors.
Likewise, who is going to take care of the town, if not the folks that live in it? Shopping local is, decidedly, the best way to nurture Main Street.
Whether townsfolk develop the habit of shopping local, organizations host regular events, or shopkeepers stay active on social media, there is no doubt one thing, in particular, keeps a Main Street and its businesses alive.
“It’s old school, I know,” said Jones, “but the key is hard work.”