City strives to boost retail numbers

    The national economic downturn has left many small businesses struggling to stay afloat, including several in the City of Williamsburg.

    Several small businesses in the city have recently ceased operation, including Alizé Bistro on Armistead Avenue and the branch of Short Stop Market located on Prince George Street. Colonial Williamsburg’s annual report for 2009, noted that more than 400 full-time jobs have been eliminated since the beginning of the recession, and that salary reductions and furlough days have been implemented for much of the remaining staff.

    However, Michele DeWitt, manager of the Office of Economic Development for the City of Williamsburg, said that business owners and city officials remain optimistic overall.

    “Businesses are always closing and opening, but we’ve actually had a lot of businesses open in the area since January this year,” she said.

    On average, five to six new businesses have opened in the Williamsburg area each month of 2010.

    Colonial Williamsburg’s annual report echoed DeWitt’s more positive outlook.

    “Considering the challenging external circumstances of 2009, it was a relatively positive year … one in which ticket sales declined from 2008 levels, but kept pace with many historic sites nationally and were substantially stronger than some,” the report said.

    Despite the encouraging reports, certain effects of the recession are starting to show.

    “So far, the recession has mostly affected services for citizens living in the city, not so much the college students yet,” Williamsburg City Council member Judy Knudson said.

    Services cut down include general city maintenance, such as trash pick-up — which has gone from two days per week to one — as well as public services. Waller Mill Park has instituted parking fees to cover costs.
    Knudson said that students may start to feel the effects soon.

    “Street maintenance is a cost students might see, especially those living off campus,” she said. “Local businesses are having a terrible time, some are coming and going. We’re doing everything we can in the city. The Chamber of Commerce and Michele DeWitt are working very closely to help small business owners.”
    Both Knudson and city council member Doug Pons agreed that, as declines, so does the welfare of business in Williamsburg.

    “I’m in the tourism business, and it’s the golden goose,” Pons said. “We need to nurture that goose, because it has the biggest impact on local business. As we see tourism decline, the city has to batten down the hatches, control expenses and look at other ways to find revenue. We have to ask ourselves how we can diversify the economy, and how tourism is going to look in the future.”

    The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is asking itself the same question. Although the organization had to drastically cut costs this past year by approximately $35 million, it simultaneously established multiple programs to attract tourists and donations.

    “Our commitment to creative and innovative offerings has never been more urgent or necessary,” Foundation Communications Director Thomas Shrout said.

    Earlier this year, the Foundation announced plans for its newest attraction, a blacksmith and armory site in the historic area.

    “Almost all the fabrication of the buildings will be undertaken by Colonial Williamsburg’s brick masons, carpenters, joiners and the blacksmiths themselves — all part of our historic trades — and they will use eighteenth-century methods,” Shrout said.

    The Foundation has also used star power to attract visitors, inviting artists ranging from Broadway singer Patti LuPone to musical group Tiempo Libre to perform. The Soup recently ran a 30-second public service announcement by celebrity Tom Hanks about the historical importance of Colonial Williamsburg.

    Additionally, Colonial Williamsburg and Preservation Virginia announced a collaboration this week to preserve the Historic Triangle.

    “The goal [of the collaboration] is fostering public understanding of the interrelated histories of Jamestown and Williamsburg and bringing more coherence to programming in the Historic Triangle,” Shrout said. “We are a leaner, stronger institution as a result of actions we had to take to protect our future. We are better positioned to take advantage of a tourism recovery when it occurs.”

    Representatives of Williamsburg Pottery said they feel they are in the same position. The business, which has been operating for 72 years, announced last week that it is beginning a $20 million reconstruction project to reshape the current facilities and attract more visitors.

    “We’re in a unique position to grow at this point, a position that a lot of businesses don’t have,” Williamsburg Pottery Executive Assistant Anne Monaghan said. “We feel strongly about expanding the Pottery and providing jobs, and we’re hoping it jump starts shopping and attracts visitors to the Greater Williamsburg area.”

    Beyond the new jobs that the Pottery itself will create — its website estimates that it will employ roughly 60 more people in the new facility — the construction project is being undertaken by Henderson, Inc., a local construction company.

    “It’s a win-win situation,” Monaghan said.

    Ultimately, the recession has caused many businesses in Williamsburg to struggle.

    “Clearly the city is like any other municipality, very susceptible to the recession and changes in the climate of tourism and business,” Pons said.

    As for the College, the economic recession in the city has had slight implications for the students.

    “Long term, the College will certainly survive as a stellar institution of higher education,” DeWitt said. “One thing I have observed with the recession is that students are more eager to work as unpaid interns to assist businesses with issues.”

    Shrout said that future economic benefit could partly come from partnerships between the College and local businesses.

    “Colonial Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary have a long history of collaboration and partnership, which is important not only to both institutions,” Shrout said. “Such a close relationship benefits the entire community and the region.”


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