Secrets of Successful Communities

Guest Blogger Jeff Curtis, Executive Director of the Orange Downtown Alliance since 2008, has been involved in economic and community development for over 40 years, working in local government, chambers of commerce, and Main Street programs.  

Downtown Orange, Virginia

Recently, Board members of the National Main Street Center (NMSC) convened in Orange, VA to host a public discussion on “Secrets of Successful Communities”.  Ed McMahon, Chairman of the NMSC Board of Directors and Senior Resident Fellow of the Urban Land Institute, led a conversation on ways that small towns can succeed in a rapidly changing world.

One big change we are experiencing is that people and businesses can choose where to live or operate more than ever before. In today’s economic climate, communities that cannot differentiate themselves will have no competitive advantage; to be different, unique, and desirable.

Likewise, there is a major shift in demographics.  Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation and make up the largest age group in the U.S. workforce.  They are postponing getting married, buying a home, own fewer cars, and drive less.  They are concentrating in cool towns and walkable markets. This is where Main Street communities can capitalize on their competitive advantage in the marketplace.

“A vision is critically important but implementation is priceless,” McMahon said. “Communities change one building or project at a time. The whole world is changing so you can either get ahead of the curve and shape the type of community you want in the future or you can just accept whatever comes down the road.”

Ultimately, it’s all a committed process.  Attendees recognized the challenges, like limited retail space and property owner engagement, and the benefits of working efficiently and unified together.

More information from McMahon on successful communities can be found here >>


Virginia Main Street Downtown Improvement Grants awarded

Seven designated Virginia Main Street (VMS) communities have been awarded VMS Downtown Improvement Grants in a special initiative marking the program’s 25th anniversary.

Successful proposals in the competitive process demonstrated: 

  • Measurable impacts or deliverables;
  • Committee or volunteer project leadership/involvement;
  • Partnerships and resource leveraging;
  • Local government involvement or support;
  • Up-to-date program reporting; and
  • The ability to complete the project using the $2,500 (plus leverage) by Dec. 2010.

The funded projects in alphabetical order are:

CulpeperA downtown banner project will carry forward the VMS-supported identity campaign and leverage donated design time, community volunteer hours, and an in-kind local government contribution. 

HarrisonburgA pilot tourism project will engage a collaborative team in the development, trial, and measurement of a concierge and resort-based educational and promotional campaign.

Martinsville:  A print and Web marketing campaign will promote Uptown Martinsville as a destination and include the development and production of a brochure and loyalty cards that shoppers will use to receive special discounts and offers at participating Uptown businesses.

OrangeA landscaping project will expand a recently successful collaboration between the Orange Downtown Alliance, local garden clubs, and the Town of Orange into a district-wide effort, leveraging volunteer hours and contributions.

South Boston:  A participatory art and history project will engage a collaborative team in painting fire hydrants as part of the community’s strategic arts and heritage economic repositioning.

StauntonA downtown banner project will extend an existing effort into a transitional, gateway portion of the district, leveraging an existing investment and increasing the engagement of a stakeholder group at the margins.

Winchester: A pedestrian oriented kiosk and signage will implement recommendations from an ongoing wayfinding planning process.

Congratulations to the successful communties, and good luck on the projects.

Guest Blogger: Orange’s Jeff Curtis on rallying Main Street around customer service training

We’re turning over the space today to Jeff Curtis, director of the Orange Downtown Alliance for some tips on rallying downtown merchants for an effective training. 

One of the recurring issues addressed in our Business Development Committee meetings has been customer service, or more specifically, the lack of it.  It’s an important issue for any community, and especially important for those wanting to tap tourism markets.

Orange is barely five minutes away from James Madison’s Montpelier, which has more than 90,000 visitors a year. We’re close to some of Virginia’s wineries, including Barboursville, and we’re  part of the regional cultural heritage trail, The Journey Through Hallowed Ground, which follows the Old Carolina Road from Gettysburg to Monticello.

In addition to having our doors open and making sure people find Orange when they’re visiting these attractions and exploring the area, we also want to make sure that tourists have a good experience while their here.  So when the opportunity arose to engage the community in customer service training, we leaped.

Here are some key points to consider when planning a customer service training event:

  1. Commitment.    Agree as a group that there is a need.  The backing of a committee or a board is important so that you’re not out there on your own.
  2. Confidence.  Be sure a positive message is sent out from the start.  Nothing worse than the subliminal message of, “Our stores suck at customer service”.  Better to have the message that “We are dedicated to providing the best customer experience available in (town).  We care about you (the merchant) and you the customer and are here to offer suggestions.”
  3. Capability.  Who do you have that can do this: a community college? A business leader?  A college intern?  Virginia Main Street retail consultant Marc Wilson?
  4. Cost.  If it’s free, participants may not think it’s worth their time.  What do you have to charge to recover expenses and perhaps make a profit while still maintaining an affordable tuition?
  5. Location and Timing.  Make it accessible. Can you do it before opening hours or after closing hours.  Are there competing events on the community calendar? What is the ease of getting there?  How accessible is parking?
  6. Promotion.  You don’t want this to be a case where you built it and they didn’t come.  No secrets here:  do whatever it takes to get people there.  Even if they come kicking and screaming about being sole shop-owners, no time, don’t have the money, etc…  Get them there.  They’ll thank you about three minutes after the class is over.  Use your newsletter, your Web site, direct mailings, announcements through an e-mail listserv, go door to door with flyers, make phone calls, hang posters, send press releases (why you always stay close friends and lunch buddies with your local newspaper editor),  find a sponsor to help pay for advertisements, talk it up–send it out–float it around.
  7. Appreciation.  Thank anybody who does anything at all to make this happen.  Give away the credit–the newspaper, the trainer who’s volunteering his expertise, the sponsor, and the town for use of the community room.  People are motivated by being appreciated. 
  8. Modification.  What are you going to do different next time?  Write it down or you’ll forget.

Finally, make note of participants who get really involved. They might be good candidates to help organize the next training, and you can encourage them to spread the word to their peers who couldn’t make it about what they learned.

Let me know if you have any comments or additional suggestions by e-mailing me at: