Lighting up the night

Lighting up the night

By Julia Brouillette (File photo)

Local businesses — led by David Martin, owner of Gold Works — are fighting for the right to light up King Street year-round.

The festive tree lights adorning King Street illuminate the busy thoroughfare from November to March annually. But local business owners — and City Councilor Del Pepper — have long asked to keep the street lit up throughout the year.

Earlier this year, Pepper successfully convinced her colleagues to set aside $13,500 to switch the lights on for an extra three months, on the condition that King Street businesses raise one-third of the overall cost by March.

That was all the prodding Martin needed to roll up his sleeves. The local artist-turned-businessman has campaigned for improvements along the corridor since opening his King Street store in the early 1990s.

Charmed by Alexandria’s business-friendly environment and artistic nature, Martin moved from Delaware to Old Town in 1985. His plan was to become a jewelry designer — not a political activist.

“I had no money, no friends and no job … but I immediately started getting a feel for the politics, bureaucracy and development of the area, then became familiar with the head of each department of the city,” he said.

Martin lobbied in 2004 to extend the banners that graced the upper length of King Street down to the waterfront end of the retail strip. When his efforts proved successful, he turned his attention to the tree lights.

“If [King Street] is dark and dismal, it’s not very favorable to tourists,” Martin explained. “It’s not safe, it doesn’t feel safe, it doesn’t look safe and it doesn’t look like the city is trying to sell itself.”

Martin has teamed up with the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce and the Old Town Business and Professional Association in his quest. He also has undertaken a letter-writing campaign to spread the word through local media.

“All the businesses on King Street depend on the tree lights,” he said, reporting that his efforts had raised $2,200 so far, with donors pledging an additional $1,000 in the coming days.

To reach $6,750 — the amount needed to move ahead with the proposal — Martin will need more businesses to join the cause.

But despite his passion, he has run into opposition from his fellow business owners. The city should foot the whole bill, he recalls more than one local storeowner saying.

And that attitude makes other businesses leery of uniting together for the campaign.

“Businesses don’t want to contribute, because they think the city should pay for it,” Martin said. “Those who will pay for it don’t want to because businesses that don’t pay their share will get a free ride.”

A sparkly tree canopy along King Street will significantly increase sales for most businesses along the retail strip, according to Martin.

“You can’t see King Street when the lights are off,” he said. “Some argue that when summer comes around, the tree leaves hide the lights. But they twinkle. Go to Shirlington and look.”

But unless Martin can raise the funds in time, the lights will turn off again March 31.

“I’m facilitating the movement, but it’s not about me. It’s about the city. And I think this is doable,” Martin said.