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Are Elkins Merchants Squandering An ‘Economic Opportunity’?

July 26, 2008
By WAYNE SHEETS, Contributing Business Writer

At Tuesday's Downtown Merchants' meeting, those in attendance - the ones who are always there - addressed three major concerns: The city's cleanliness, esthetics and business hours mindset.

These subjects keep coming up week after week. Why? Because they feel if something is not done to improve all three, the city is going to lose an "economic opportunity of a life time."

Before I go any further, let me ask that you refrain from killing the messenger. While I agree with what is being said, I'm merely reporting what is being discussed at the bi-monthly meetings.

Gary Schoonover, owner of Granny's Attic on Randolph Avenue, is waging a "one man" battle for the cleanliness of the city. While he readily admits that having a business on Randolph Avenue presents a special challenge with dirt and dust because of the traffic volume, he observed that other streets are not much better - namely Third Street and Davis Avenue - yet have far less traffic. He, with the concurrence of the others, contends that the city street department is not doing as much as they should or could to combat the problem. The tell-tale signs, many believe, is evidence of places where cars have been parked when the street cleaner makes its rounds.

Another issue in the "clean and neat" department is that of discarded broken furniture, mattresses and other items stashed in alleyways and against buildings. One can't help but wonder why these items haven't been picked up by trash collection agencies and discarded properly. Abandoned automobiles were another problem cited at Tuesday's meeting.

Another issue of concern is the residue from the trees downtown. Members are dismayed that many business owners do not expend the effort to keep their portion of the street free from debris created by them and other sources. Statistics show that merchants who have businesses on tree-lined streets have higher sales than those who don't. Having trees downtown, then, is a no-brainer. It's a matter of keeping the streets clean.

Those concerned with the cleanliness of the streets also take issue with the concentration of cigarette butts on the streets in front of some bars and restaurants. Would it be too much, they ask, that those venues frequented by smokers be provided some kind of container in which to place cigarette butts?

Schoonover suggested forming a committee to draw up a list of "cleanliness concerns" and present them to Mayor Judy Guye and City Council to let them know what the merchants believe needs to be done and what response is expected from City Council.

Last fall, the Elkins-Randolph County Chamber of Commerce conducted a survey among its members to ascertain the actions necessary to improve the economic climate in the area. The No. 1 concern, according to Executive Director Ellen Spears, was the improvement of the town and area esthetics. More than 75 percent agreed that they are more attracted to a town that is esthetically pleasing.

It costs money to keep buildings painted and trimmed in eye-pleasing and attractive dress. "Where is the money to come from?" many asked. Most agreed that the one entity that profits most from a prosperous and growing economy is banks. If merchants are making money, they have an incentive to expand their business or add new lines of merchandise. This, in turn, creates a demand for credit and prosperity increases savings.

The idea was floated among the members that perhaps the local banks should form a partnership and create a fund from which merchants could apply for a grant to be used specifically for the purpose of making their stores more attractive.

Another alternative involves what most citizens and merchants fear most - annexation. Mayor Guye, and those before her and those to come, have and will continue to tell us that the city would be eligible for a great deal more grant money if the population of the city were 10,000 or greater. For those who are accustomed to paying city assessments, it's hard to understand why there has been so much opposition by those outside the boundary to pass any efforts that would provide money for the things that would improve the town's esthetics and its aging infrastructure. It's everyone's town, they say. "Where is the pride of one's hometown, and interest in growth that would benefit everyone far beyond the cost of annexation?" they ask.

Another subject that came up at Tuesday's meeting was that of merchants' operating hours. This is probably the most urgent of all their concerns regarding missing the "economic window of opportunity" that now exists for Elkins.

Since the advent of the excursion trains and the opening of the American Mountain Theater, operators of both have constantly voiced their concerns regarding this issue. Having sat in some of these meetings, I offer my humble opinion that no one is trying to dictate to anyone how they should operate their business or their hours of operation. It doesn't seem to make much sense though to open a business at 8 a.m. and close at 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. just when our visitors are coming back from their train ride and looking for some place to shop until time for dinner and the theater.

Matt Scott, an employee of the American Mountain Theater, assembles tour packages that includes the theater, train rides, dining and lodging. At Tuesday's meeting, he said, "Just for the heck of it, I Googled the AMT to see what would come out of cyber space. There was not a single negative remark about the theater, but a blogger did say, 'The theater is a great entertainment venue. But if you ride the train then plan on going to the theater, you'd better have something planned to do between the end of the train ride and the time the show starts. I couldn't find a store open anywhere during that time.'"

Spears made the following observation regarding Sunday morning of the July 4 weekend car show. "There were 482 cars in Elkins that Sunday morning. I walked through the entire town around 8:30 a.m. and found not a single merchant open for business.

"Each car had at least two people with it, and some three or four, all of which were looking for breakfast and not one restaurant in town was open except Scotties. Nor were any of the other stores open."

When talking to merchants, I keep hearing them say tourist traffic downtown doesn't do them any good. It all stays at the train depot, motel or theater. Why should I stay open beyond my regular hours? With that attitude they will always stay away from downtown and probably won't come back.

Comments of this nature are being expressed at meetings of other organizations as well, including the ERCCC. Operators of the major entertainment venues fear that those who come to Elkins for a unique experience and an opportunity to enjoy the town "Where Mountain Memories Are Made" and leave disappointed, will not come back. Nearly all businesses live or die by repeat customers. Tourism is no exception.

These concerns, in my opinion at least, are not voiced in condemnation of anyone, political body or political appointees. They are, I believe, a unified cry for help, albeit a weak one. Their earnest desire, I believe, is to capture the interest of everyone and secure their aid in making Elkins and it environs a place where people from afar who have been here once will want to return. They believe that if something is not done, and done soon, the city will have lost an economic opportunity that will not present itself again.

Can we afford to continue the status quo and throw away the "window of economic opportunity" that beacons so brightly? We can, of course, but the consequences will be devastating and long lasting.



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