Former Elkins Mayor and Chairwoman of the ON TRAC Economic Restructuring Committee Judy Guye released the results of the committee's business survey and history status at the Downtown Merchants meeting on Tuesday. Guye said that she was very pleased with the number of surveys that were returned. Of the 106 surveys distributed, 64 were returned for a 51 percent participation rate, which is far above the average of about 25 percent in such surveys.
The purpose of the survey and history status project is to find ways to retain downtown businesses in operation and to find ways of attracting new businesses or operating businesses to expand and use the existing empty space in the downtown area. The presentation of the survey at Tuesday's meeting also resulted in the discussion of the feasibility of putting together a promotional packet that deals with attracting business to Elkins by promoting the amenities of doing business, living and enjoying life in Elkins.
The survey, as always, revealed some interesting facts. I don't have room to go into detail for everything that was covered but I was a bit surprised to learn that the oldest business in Elkins has been in operation for 100 years. Confidentiality of the survey prohibits revealing what business that is - and I don't know anyway, but I think that speaks volumes for the economic strength of the area.
Of those that returned the survey, 22 are retail businesses, 14 are professional services and eight are financial/insurance/real estate businesses. That leaves a lot of other types of business unmentioned. Customer base information was surprising, too. Fifty-three percent of those surveyed reported that their customer base is from Elkins and Randolph County. Some businesses reported 73 percent of their business is tourist based, 24 percent reported that their customer base covered the entire state and other businesses reported that 44 percent of their customer base comes from the Internet.
One interesting revelation of the survey was that of peak business hours. No one reported a trend in this area such as Friday evening or Saturday afternoon or an increase in mid-week shopping. The local newspaper was reported as the major means of advertising nearly two to one. The Yellow Pages was second with 35 businesses and 27 said they advertise on the Internet. Eighteen businesses reported advertising weekly and 14 said they advertised monthly and quarterly. Twenty-eight of the respondents said they would be interested in participating in a cooperative business marketing effort to attract customers to downtown or to encourage residents to shop locally. Eight said maybe - the rest did not respond to the question.
A quality labor force was reported by 33 businesses as the critical factor for the success and expansion of business in Elkins. Twelve considered financing as a critical factor for success and expansion, while 31 said that foot traffic was the critical factor. Current inventory was considered critical by 11 businesses and 26 considered public access to be the critical factor.
Employee hiring and skills training was stated by 30 businesses as necessary to keep their business healthy and competitive. Interestingly, since one of the ON TRAC committee's focus is property and facade improvement, 21 businesses considered this to be crucial to keeping their business healthy and competitive.
Here's one that we hear every day. Parking for employees was the No. 1 suggestion for the improvement of downtown Elkins. A cleaner downtown came in a strong second with sidewalks and streets being the primary concern. Some expressed animal control as another concern for the beautification of our town.
Advantages of doing business in downtown Elkins included such things as being close to banks and the post office, businesses are centrally located and in walking distance of each other, nearby restaurants and support of our local economy.
I talked to several people downtown, merchants and private citizens, and some felt the survey to be important as a means of finding ways to expand current businesses and to attract new ones. Others felt that the survey was an intrusion on the privacy of the businesses. I found that the most contested questions were whether the owner/operator owned or leased the place of business and the cost of renting or leasing the business space. Other questions that were considered invasive were the approximate square footage of the business, number of employees, customer base and the estimated number of customers who enter their business each day.
Not surprising, was the inevitable question as to what good would result from answering the survey's questions. Programs of the past, Vision 2010 being one, were mentioned as past efforts to accomplish some of the things that ON TRAC is trying to evaluate and improve. Personally, I'm not convinced that Vision 2010 was a failure. I believe, while it may not have brought about the many changes and improvements that were hoped for, it did bring to the forefront many of the area's challenges that need to be addressed for the town's future progress and wellbeing. While ON TRAC is decidedly a different program, its mission and aims, I think, will address many of the challenges the town faces. Not the least of which is getting people - people who can make a difference and help ensure the success of ON TRAC - to work with and share their ideas for making our entire living, working and relaxing environment better for everyone.
Here are some bits and pieces of other subjects mentioned at Tuesday's Merchants Meeting. There will be a ceremony at the All Veterans Memorial on May 31. Folks from the Downtown Merchants will be serving refreshments and, according to Ed. Griesel, defacto chairman of the group, monetary donations are needed to restock the fund to pay for them. Griesel said, "Your donation is greatly appreciated as we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice."
The Spring Fling Shopping effort was not as successful as the one in December, but a success nonetheless. Eighteen merchants participated in the program and there were 211 entries for the prizes. Winners of the gift certificates were: Becky Canfield, $25; Eleanor Arbogast of Marlinton, $50; and the $75 winner was Stacy Everson. Collectively, the participating merchants were able to advertise their wares at a reduced rate and had more customers than they ordinarily might have had.
Anne Beardslee, who headed up the group's efforts said, "The important thing is that merchants are working together for the common cause. We would like to continue the event and get more people used to and participating in the events."
Mayor Duke Talbott reported that the contract for the new water line construction on Davis Avenue has been let. Work should begin in about two weeks and contractors are planning a pre-construction meeting before the work begins. The date for the meeting hasn't been set yet, so watch for it.
The mayor is asking those who have concerns about the construction and its effects on business to be sure to attend the meeting.
"We hope that the construction will be completed before the Forest Festival arrives," Talbott said. "If everything goes as planned, there shouldn't be a problem."
He also said that the bricks removed from the street during the construction will be kept separate from everything else to be cleaned and recycled for use at the train depot. According to the mayor, the construction company has 120 days from the start date to complete the project. He, along with ON TRAC Director Ellen Spears, will be attending the Main Street Conference in Oklahoma City, Okla., from May 2 through 5. Let's hope that ON TRAC is successful and they will put what they learn in Oklahoma to use in our town.