Merchants hope to derail King St. tunnel vision

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Camera-toting tourists flock to Old Town each spring to explore the crevices beyond the District. Once they debark from the water taxi, Metro or King Street Trolley, their journey becomes a wandering quest to spend money on the citys assets: its hotels, restaurants and shops.

Yet those wandering tourists, no matter how investigative, can be so charmed by the King Street corridors endless shops and eateries that the path less trodden stays that way, visitors tunnel visioning toward the Masonic Temple or the Potomac River, bypassing the side dishes to the left and right.

On a sunny weekday afternoon, Steve Barber sported a touristy Washington, DC cap, strolling up King St. with his wife, Kathi, and their friends, Charles and Glenda Seargeant. Hailing from Fort Worth, Texas, it was the groups first time in the city. Were staying in Georgetown, Barber said. But we thought wed come on over. Added Kathi, We thought wed see whats going on with the shopping. After covering four blocks of King St., the party had yet to take a left or a right.

So what about the businesses on the periphery, in the shadows of the well-lit main drag? Both city officials and local business owners agree that Old Towns charm and capital is backboned by locally run specialty shops and restaurants, not national chains.

The question is how to champion that charm.

These are unique shops and restaurants, said Cindy McCartney, owner of Diva consignment boutique and president of Retailers Off King Street (ROKS), a startup organization that lobbies for the recognition of small businesss special needs. Why not let people know?

The young ROKS campaign focuses on signage, lighting (McCartney said 75 percent of her revenue comes late in the day) and amenities like trashcans near their cross-street ventures to beautify the off-streets, enticing visitors and residents. More lighting would allow later hours and increased revenue, McCartney said, and trashcans could ebb litter.

During the new Hotel Monacos renovation, the city allowed temporary sidewalk signs traditionally banned to orient consumers toward off-King St. cash registers. And it worked. Our business expanded exponentially with extra signage, McCartney said. Revenues actually increased. People just knew we were there.

More revenue for small businesses means more tax revenue for the city, especially from out-of-towners, and city officials and stakeholders have responded amiably.

Helping to market the city, the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association (ACVA) recently conducted their Slogan and Branding Study, identifying the opportunities for maximizing the communitys tourism potential among other marketing factors. ACVAs President and CEO, Stephanie Brown, spearheaded the study that found five primary identifiers distinguishing Alexandria as a destination: historical ambiance, architectural showcasing, charm, great restaurants and an interesting mix of retail and shops.

Such elements intertwine to formulate the citys brand how its perceived as a destination, and signage was just one of the numerous points of discussion revolving around the historical edge.

The Citys brand attributes work together, Brown said. None stands alone. We must strive to support the needs of independent retailers while maintaining the historic ambiance that is the foundation of Alexandrias economic sustainability.

A stakeholder advisory group manifested in February as part of the citys way-finding initiative, intended to streamline the citys signage effectively and project a consistent image for the entire city; reduce visual clutter; promote walking, bicycling, and use of mass transit; and be sustainable as well as expandable, the Planning and Zoning Web site stated. A ROKS member is on the advisory group.

With business signage, we recognize that theres a problem on King Street with shop owners feeling like they arent getting enough, said Kathleen Beeton, the division chief for neighborhood planning and community development for the Department of Planning and Zoning. Its something that we are evaluating. We are looking at a full range of options.

Were very much at the beginning of the study. Were looking at Mount Vernon, the West End as well. This is comprehensive.

One of the challenges to the endeavor will be balancing historical preservation with retail endeavors, so that the city retains its historical aesthetic, Beeton said.

A community and Stakeholder Advisory Group joint meeting will be held May 29 at the Masonic Temple.

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