Fredericksburg Downtown Gang's recommendations to improve downtown sounded familiar to several of the merchants who were listening in at City Council chambers Monday morning during the presentation.
Fredericksburg Downtown Gang is a group of local professionals who volunteered to conduct a survey that 1,100 people responded to, to gauge opinions about what's working and not working in downtown Fredericksburg. The group also visited cities such as Staunton and Charlottesville to see what they are doing to keep visitors happy in their downtowns.
Andi Gabler, who operates The Schooler House Bed and Breakfast at 1303 Caroline St., said the group did a good job with the presentation and recommendations, but she wondered if the group's work ends now. She said the city has had similar studies and surveys during the 15 years she has been here.
"We need to implement them," she said.
Paul Cymrot, owner of two bookstores downtown, and Scarlett Suhy-Pons of the PonShop, hope to do exactly what Gabler said. Cymrot and Suhy-Pons are organizing a nonprofit called Real Fredericksburg through the MainStreet program. They've been meeting with a core group of three other downtown merchants, who together have met with more than 50 stakeholders already. They want to bring a voice to downtown merchants and help coordinate, communicate and plan better events that bring more attention to downtown.
“Overall, I think it is wonderful that downtown matters this much. Nobody is doing a study about Central Park," he said. "This is important to people, this is important to everyone."
Cymrot said once the organization gets off the ground, it will analyze the survey and the Downtown Gang's recommendations and decide which ideas are worth moving forward with and which are not.
"If it comes out worth doing then we are going to be the ones doing it," he said. "Our goal is to figure out which of the things we can actually do."
Some of the recommendations were to have a gift-card program funded by the EDA in which select customers could get gift cards in increments of $5 to $50 for shopping downtown. The EDA unanimously agreed to spend about $1,000 on hiring someone to create the program, and the only cost to the EDA would be to pay for the gift card increments. Other ideas from the Downtown Gang were to have valet parking to the downtown parking garage, bring back a movie theater downtown that can show old movies and have performing arts and a parking validation program that would allow people to use the parking garage for free if they showed a receipt from a downtown merchant for that day.
Bonnie DeLelys, manager of The Richard Johnson Inn, said she thought the valet parking and the parking validation recommendations were good ideas. She said the survey results showing that the Christmas parade, First Friday and Oktoberfest were the top events doesn't mean that the merchants see a boon along with the increase in traffic.
"Yeah, they bring people downtown, but they aren’t spending money and they aren’t coming down for the benefit of the merchants," she said.
Deleys said Judy Randall did a marketing study for downtown years ago and it collected dust. The challenges downtown merchants face sometimes seem too big. The empty space next to Capital Ale House has been mentioned as a spot that would be good for a small local grocery store, but Deleys wondered where people would park. The space has been vacant for years.
“It’s what we all know and we all talk about it, but nothing gets done," she said. “I’d like them to do some marketing for downtown to draw some better shops in. I don’t know who is in charge of that or who does that. Look at Alexandria and all of the neat little shops they’ve got. I hear it from my guests, 'Your shops are kind of outdated.'”
Lee Russell, owner of Olde Towne Butcher at 401 William St., said during Monday's presentation that he'd like a special committee commissioned to investigate the city's parking challenges. He said shop owners and their employees shouldn't be using the parking spots in front of downtown businesses, and he won't let his employees do it.
"There are a lot of things that can be done that are not being done," he said.
Suhy-Pons said Real Fredericksburg will be an organization that can help get some of these ideas off the ground.
“A lot of the ideas that [the Downtown Gang] presented are ideas that have been rolling around downtown for years," she said. "The Real Fredericksburg organization is hopefully the missing link to get some of these things resolved and done."
She said there is a misconception that there is a division among downtown merchants. She said many of the merchants just want the popular events better organized and to have their voices heard before a plan is fortified.
"There isn’t a division," she said. "Using language like that is doing everybody more harm than good. A lot of these decisions are not being made with the help of the people who work and live downtown. There is a lack of communication and a lot of the merchants who have been here for a long time, they have seen this for the past 30 years. This survey has been done time and time again. And yet, nothing is getting done. So that is their frustration."