The Leesburg Town Council is again poised to consider whether downtown Leesburg should have its own Main Street organization.
The council voted this week to authorize staff to submit an application to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to move into its Tier 2, Exploring Main Street program.
The county seat has explored numerous times over the years whether to move into the Main Street umbrella organization and, ultimately, form a 501(c)3 to provide a level of management of the downtown business area, namely in the area of promotions, events and establishing a unified voice and representation for business leaders. In the past the debate has ended with reluctance about funding, as annual costs for running a Main Street organization can top $150,000, much of which is borne by a locality in the early stages.
The Virginia Main Street program has recently debuted a tiered system for participation in the program, said Russell Seymour, director of the town’s Economic Development Department. The level of staff and stakeholder involvement increases with each tier, and, ultimately, a full-fledged Main Street organization needs to be financially self-supporting.
In a Monday, Sept. 27 presentation to the Town Council, Seymour encouraged council members to consider moving into the Tier 2 of the program, which serves as an opportunity without financial or overall commitment to see if a Main Street program could be a good fit for downtown Leesburg.
Tier 2 requirements are minimal, with only an encouragement that town staff attend at least one Virginia Main Street-sponsored training event.
“The tiered approach gives us time to generate interest and provide better understanding” to local businesses, Seymour said.
The timing is ideal, he said, as Leesburg and other localities had a lot of lessons learned from their business community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Seymour cited all the feedback generated from business leaders in terms of how the town could assist them, from grants to closing downtown streets for outdoor dining, to enhanced signage.
“Being able to have a Main Street program that would create and generate good ideas on a consistent basis…a Main Street program, once you get to Tier 2 it allows you to start creating that environment so you’re generating that information from a platform,” he said.
Seymour emphasized that, to move beyond Tier 2, there must be strong buy-in from the business community for running a Main Street organization, as such an organization would fail without that support.
Moving forward, Seymour said a Town Hall meeting with a Department of Housing and Community Development and a Main Street program administrator from a locality of a similar size to Leesburg would be scheduled, to inform both the general public and local business owners what such a program could look like in Leesburg.
“Based upon the feedback from meetings we can determine if there’s a desire or need to pursue Tier 3,” he said.
If the council does elect to move into Tier 3 of the program, a few things would need to happen, Seymour said. Perhaps the biggest would be adding staff in his department, as he said setting up and running such a program is not something that his two-person department has the manpower or time to do. Tier 3 would also entail setting up a steering committee composed of town staff and downtown business leaders supportive of the program; developing a vision/mission for downtown based on town wants and business needs; developing goals and a work plan for accomplishing them; and developing a budget based upon that information.
Moving higher up through the tiers would make Leesburg eligible for a number of state-funded programs and grants.
Upon questioning, Seymour pointed out that one of the biggest hang-ups for the council in prior iterations of the Main Street debate was that it appeared that the downtown was thriving without such an umbrella organization. Since the pandemic hit, businesses across the board have struggled to get back to pre-pandemic levels of business, and the nature of retail and the consumer experience has changed, perhaps forever.
Moving into Tier 3 and 4, Leesburg could be looking at $150,000 to $225,000 annually to run a Main Street program. Ultimately a self-supporting organization would run and fund that, with a dedicated staff member spending quite a bit of their time on fundraising, but typically localities still chip in 25% to 30% in annual funding.
All but Mayor Kelly Burk cited a desire to move into the Tier 2 exploration phase, with Councilman Zach Cummings stating is belief that a Main Street organization could be a real boon to downtown businesses.
“We need an organization that’s out there fighting for our businesses, especially in downtown,” he said.
Burk said her reluctance stemmed from the fact that the Main Street debate is one she’s heard ad nauseum since she first joined the council in 2004.
“We’re still at the same place we were; we’re still at the exploring stage. We’ve had the other Main Street people come to us, we’ve had the businesses meet. We’ve done all of this and now we’re going to do it again. This has been a long, long, long journey and I just don’t see an end to it,” she said.