Your View: Old Town businesses will be fine with appropriate vision and change

Your View: Old Town businesses will be fine with appropriate vision and change

By Elizabeth Todd, Owner, The Shoe Hive (File photo)

To the editor:
In 1999, I moved to the south-eastern quadrant of Old Town, having previously lived in Ohio. I was 25, newly married, and when we came to look at houses I had a mild heart attack when we got on the Beltway.

One of my college roommates lived in Old Town and I knew when I met her for dinner that this was the only place I wanted to live in Northern Virginia. The charm, small town feel and great restaurants and shops that lined King Street and the side streets made it a no brainer. I knew this Midwestern girl was not meant for the traffic and congestion of suburbia in outer Fairfax.

Four years later, I was fortunate enough to open a store similar to those that drew me to the area.

Recently, a few of the business that make Old Town and Del Ray such desirable locations to live and visit have closed, causing a measure of alarm in civic circles. As a resident, it saddens me to see them go. As a fellow small business owner, it terrifies me.

How can I make it if longtime Old Town institutions close their doors? The truth of the matter is running a small business is hard, no matter where you live. A recession, government shutdown or even a snowstorm can have a drastic effect on a store or restaurant’s ability to stay open. Most of these things are not in our control.

But what I can control is where my business is located. There is no place I would rather operate than in Old Town. I have received unbelievable support from this town over the last 13 years. My customers are loyal, supportive and have encouraged me to expand over the years.

The Alexandria Marketing Fund also has been a champion for two organizations I helped start, the Old Town Boutique District and Alexandria Stylebook. Their support expands beyond these two groups and to various organizations in Alexandria that increase economic activity and sales tax revenue.

We also have great partners in the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, the Small Business Development Center and Visit Alexandria. All three are committed to bringing great businesses and visitors to Alexandria.

It is true that there are things the city government could be doing better. The same is true for my business; there are always things I could improve upon.

Parking remains a problem in Alexandria. I am not a parking expert or a city planner, but I do know from customers that the two-hour limit, along with meters being enforced until 9 p.m., is not conducive to shopping and dining in Old Town. Many people opt to park in residential areas, where the hours are longer.

There are garages, but they can be expensive and there are no garages open in the evening west of Alfred Street. Nothing says, “Don’t come back to Alexandria to do business,” louder than a $40 parking ticket. We have higher ticket rates than most of our neighbors.

For years there has been a problem with employees at City Hall parking on the streets, taking up valuable spaces that should be used by the shoppers whose dollars would support the tax base that pays the salaries in City Hall.

A related problem we need to fix involves pedestrians. Wayfinding is essential in any walkable business district with street parking, and it is an area where we fall short. When I visit walkable business districts, even historic ones like Charleston and Williamsburg, I am envious of the signage that easily directs visitors to parking, attractions and dining and shopping options. Old Town has never had a comprehensive answer to this problem, and it’s way overdue.

Opening a business in our city also needs to be easier. I don’t have to deal with the special use permit process as I am in the apparel industry, but many others do and it can be lengthy and overly cumbersome. Many restaurants and service businesses end up opening months after they anticipated, losing revenue because of red tape and digging a ditch of sunk costs that becomes impossible to escape.

So yes, there is always room for progress, and hopefully the wave of concern spawned by the closure of places like Bittersweet, Why Not?, and others will provoke our community to keep working to make Old Town and Del Ray the best places to run independent businesses in America.

We should take the positives of this transition and build upon them. While a few folks have expressed concern to me that big-box national retailers have begun moving into Old Town, long the dominion of the independent retailer, I believe this change is actually a good thing. We need a blend to attract shoppers to spend a whole day in Old Town and not just to run a quick errand. Rents on King Street are high and, in some situations, it takes a national retailer’s volume to pay that note.

Just think about some of the positive growth we’ve had as a result of chain entry. We traded a Hallmark store for Anthroplologie and a rug store for White House/Black Market, both of which complement the fashion-heavy local offerings. We traded COSI, a food chain, for the only Lululemon store in the area, a magnet for people to come to Old Town to shop for the first time.

One of my worst years in business was when the hotel next door to me at the time, the Holiday Inn, was being rebuilt into the Hotel Monaco, owned by Kimpton. Since then, Kimpton has purchased two other properties in Old Town and has become a wonderful civic partner in our city, an advantage that was totally worth the wait and pain of their construction.

Change can be good for Alexandria. We just have to stay focused on the vision of what we can do best and what we can become.