By Wayne Sheets
Contributing Business Writer
Because of the larger than usual attendance at the Downtown Merchants meeting Tuesday morning, lively discussion was held on several subjects. Some were "old hat" while others were "new business." The subject of "store hours" came up again - this one has been around for several years now (one of the old hat subjects) but it was a timely one considering that the tourist season is just around the corner. A new element surfaced in the discussions Tuesday morning, however.
Just what hours the merchants keep is, of course, up to the merchants. However, the statement was made that if the downtown businesses, and all the others around the area, were to open later in the day and keep their stores open later, the local citizens would be better served. Merchants agreed that "opening later - closing later" hours would better serve the local residents, especially those who work at production jobs or in other disciplines in the outlying areas. It was suggested that if the local citizens were offered better hours that in itself would help business and the tourist trade would come as an added bonus.
The biggest "bone of contention" since I began covering the meetings has been that the thousands of people (here we go again) who come into the city of Elkins to attend the theater and or ride the trains is that only a scant few make it across Railroad Avenue to the downtown area. This problem has been the subject of many conversations between merchants and the operators of the theater and the railroad with very little if any noticeable results.
Many feel that the problem lies in the schedules of those that come to visit by the bus companies. They contend that the bus companies do not allow enough "free" time in their scheduling between the time of their arrival and the time the trains depart and between the time the trains arrive back at the depot and the time the shows start at the American Mountain Theater. Merchants feel that these tight schedules give the visitors only enough time to freshen up and have dinner before showtime and should have more time that would allow our visitors to explore the downtown stores.
Ed Griesel, president of the merchants association and bus tour guide, agreed that while this might be true, changing the schedules once they are established is virtually impossible. He said he thinks he's beginning to see a change in the scheduling that allows for a little more time between activities but those changes are entirely up to the bus companies and changes will be slow in coming.
Another area of concern is how to inform our guests of the many interesting stores in the downtown area. Merchants say they are constantly being asked "What's downtown for us to see?" by those visitors who do make it downtown. Most are at wits end to answer this one. Advertising has been placed in several statewide magazines, brochures have been printed and distributed throughout West Virginia and at countless visitors centers in neighboring states. In hopes of helping, Lisa and Mike Green, owners of the newly established Get Outta Town Now travel agency mentioned in last week's column, volunteered to create a Web site for the merchants and to fund its first year of operations. Further discussion of the creation of the Web site was tabled until the next meeting, which will be on March 23. Those present showed some enthusiasm for the Web site saying that nearly everyone that comes into their stores asks if they have a Web site. If they go with the Web site, perhaps that will help.
It's been said before and perhaps bears repeating. The first challenge tackled by ON?TRAC, headed up by Ellen Spears, former executive director of the Elkins-Randolph County Chamber of Commerce, is that of trying to get visitors across Railroad Avenue and into the downtown area. Everyone would hope for a quick solution to this situation but "quick fixes" are not to be in the very near future. Coupled with this challenge is that of finding a way to get traffic slowed down in the depot area. There has been, as most everyone should know by now, a reduction in the speed limit to 15 miles per hour in the area, but if you've tried to cross that street, in either direction, you've noticed that very few heed the speed limit sign or 15 mph is a lot faster than it used to be. To be frank about it, that is one of the most dangerous places in the city to cross the street.
The fact of the matter is a solution to both concerns is being studied but it will take time. Engineering studies have to be made, cost estimates have to be made, the bidding process for construction must be dealt with and the construction itself will take time.
While we're on the subject of tourists and tourism, permit me to mention that the Travel Promotion Act was signed into law on March 4 by President Obama. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation said of the signing, "Today's signing of the Travel Promotion Act into law ... will go a long way to increase travel and tourism - helping city and community economies across the state."
According to Betty Carver, commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Tourism, the tourism industry in West Virginia contributes $4.38 billion to the state's economy and employs 44,000 people. She said, "We (the commission) look forward to working with Senator Rockefeller and his staff to further develop the industry and to reach tourism's economic potential."