• 68°

Imagine Farmville — Downtown Economic Development

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued Phase 1 of reopening the Commonwealth of Virginia Friday, May 15. Over that weekend, the Town of Farmville, particularly downtown, quickly began to show signs of life that had been missing over the past two months.

Restaurants offered dining outdoors, and retail stores opened with social distancing measures.

As the reopening of Virginia, and reopening of Farmville, become possible, the question remains of what businesses in town are trying to do to stay afloat as social distancing measures have caused many businesses to reduce their operations or temporarily close.

This edition of Imagine Farmville examines the current downtown economy, how businesses are adapting to social distancing guidelines, and how these adaptations may affect the town’s economy in the future.

The closing or decrease in foot traffic in stores have yielded some surprises. Some businesses downtown are reporting higher levels of activity on websites or social media. As some businesses come closer to resuming typical operations, in the event that tourism becomes a safer option for families, Farmville downtown may be better equipped now than ever to welcome the future. But the economic repercussions of COVID-19 may continue to last.

‘STILL A LOT OF FEAR’

Fran Willis, owner of Fran Willis Photography on 233 Main St. in Farmville, said the photography studio was one of many businesses downtown to reopen with modifications.

“We reopened with guidelines and have seen a few people,” Willis said in a Tuesday interview.

To adapt to social distancing guidelines, Willis said the studio has added online ordering options.

“I think there’s still a lot of fear and naturally so, we have included some online ordering options and porch deliveries that our clients are happy about,” Willis said.

Willis said in an earlier interview that like many creative businesses in the area, the coronavirus pandemic has upended the opportunity to serve the number of clients the studio typically generates. “To say it completely affected [my business] would be an understatement,” Willis said. “It’s completely devasted our normal.”

Several weeks ago, when the Stay-at-Home Order remained in place, Willis said she had tried to continue creating art.

The empty Main Street of several weeks ago was a stark contrast to the traffic generated over the weekend of May 15.

Willis, in April, was inspired to photograph dancers on Main Street.

She took the photos from 20 feet away.

The photo series was meant to offer something to people that wasn’t bad news or depressing coronavirus statistics.

“It gives people something to look at that isn’t news or COVID,” Willis said. “We couldn’t contribute but so much, but we could do this.”

Businesses in the county need more support than ever, she said. One way to support local businesses that doesn’t require leaving home can be a click away.

“Social media is free, and it helps your neighbor to share” posts from area businesses, Willis said. “It can do a lot to get the word out.”

ARMCHAIR ADVENTURES

Willis’ business has not been the only one to see an increase in social media or online traffic.

“Our website traffic has also been up 30 (percent) the last 30 days,” Green Front Furniture President Den Cralle said.

Green Front launched a companion website to the website for its main stores. GreenFrontRugs.com focuses solely on its inventory of rugs.

“It has surpassed our expectations for its initial launch. We are working hard to keep the inventory on that site stocked while we also deal with the influx of customers,” he said.

A similar increase in web traffic was seen on the Farmville Tourism website, Visit Farmville, Ilsa Loeser of Letterpress Communications said.

“Over the last 30 days, we’ve seen a steady uptick in Visit Farmville website traffic,” Loeser said. “Traffic has increased by 55 (percent) in the last four weeks, compared to the previous four weeks. Visits brought to the site from Facebook have doubled in the last month as well. Since April 1, the Facebook page has reached more than 290,000 people. That’s a 69 (percent) increase in page reach in April over the previous month, March. Over the course of the last 30 days, the page has garnered 466 new likes as well.”

Online traffic and social media have played large roles in continued support for small businesses. Though, like many businesses in downtown Farmville, the decision for Green Front to reopen its physical stores was a difficult one to make.

“We take the safety of our employees, community and customers seriously,” Cralle said. “It was a difficult decision to reopen.”

To adapt to reopening, they required employees to wear face masks, replace handshakes with waves, and to frequently and carefully wash their hands and use hand sanitizer.

“We are also encouraging customers to wear face masks and use available hand sanitizer frequently,” Cralle said. “We have extra masks available for customers who need them. Signage is posted prominently throughout our buildings as a friendly reminder to follow social distancing guidelines.”

Cralle said in the few weeks since Green Front reopened its stores, they have seen a steady increase of foot traffic.

Cralle said he believes customers are purchasing new furniture and shopping closer to home rather than vacationing and traveling.

Cralle said Green Front is preparing to meet this shift, and said the town has a lot to offer people who cannot travel long distances.

TOWN EFFORTS

The Town of Farmville recently announced efforts to help businesses struggling as a result of the coronavirus.

Members of Town Council voted to allocate $10,000 to the town’s Industrial Development Authority (IDA) to establish a grant program that small businesses in town can apply. A release dated May 14 said that there would also be opportunities for the Farmville IDA to coordinate efforts with the Prince Edward IDA for the grant program.

“We are genuinely concerned about our business community and looking forward to our economy gradually returning over the summer and are optimistic about the fall,” Town Manager Scott Davis said in the May 14 release. “I am looking forward to working with the Farmville IDA to formulate a grant program that meets the wishes of town council while providing some type of assistance to local businesses.”

Davis and Farmville Mayor David Whitus said in a Wednesday interview that businesses are quickly adapting to the changing circumstances, noting that they have observed existing businesses beginning to adapt with additional knowledge of the virus and potential treatments. Whitus and Davis said the town is hopeful that downtown, with time, will return to similar business functions it had in the recent past.

Whitus and Davis said additional measures by the town to assist businesses will continue to be considered and determined in the future.

The town council has not been the only organization to offer financial support and efforts toward small businesses affected.

The Farmville Downtown Partnership was approved to create a grant program with the Department of Housing and Community Development to provide grants totaling $1,000 to 14 small businesses in the Farmville area.

Downtown Partnership President Jennifer Cox said the grant program focused on three areas with one focus being on the creativity of businesses to adapt to the current economic situation.

“With Virginia entering Phase 1 of reopening on Friday we have seen that businesses spent a lot of time thinking through public health protocols to make it safe for employees and customers to return to stores,” Cox said. “In addition, many of our businesses have gotten creative with how they offer services such as ‘Family Packs’ from restaurants that feed four-plus people and gift shops showcasing crafted gifts based on a holiday or event.”

Cox said those in the community can continue to support their favorite businesses by purchasing gift cards to use at later times, ordering “to go” from restaurants, and by shopping local for birthday or graduation gifts.

The Farmville Area Chamber of Commerce has similarly offered resources for businesses, disseminating documents from federal and state agencies on small businesses resources, providing platforms for specialists to provide information about the current economy and programs, and marketing and celebrating area businesses.

Like Willis and others, Farmville Area Chamber of Commerce Assistant Director Anne Tyler Paulek and Director of Marketing Jennifer Kinne said the pandemic has been unexpected.

“We practice fire drills, we learn what to do for hurricanes, we get our generators and flashlights ready” for those emergencies, Kinne said in a Wednesday interview. “But no one was expecting this. We can’t change the batteries in our fire detectors every six months and expect that to help us through a pandemic.”

Another way that businesses may be prepared to adapt concerns a potential future uptick in tourism. As travel becomes safer, people searching for day trips, opportunities to take outdoor hikes or shop could look to Farmville, Cox said, and this tourism opportunity could benefit small businesses.

“Tourists are drawn to Farmville for a variety of reasons” Cox said. “Some tourists are eager to visit Green Front Furniture, others are interested in the recreational activities such as High Bridge Trail State Park, some set foot in Farmville for the first time as they consider Longwood University or Hampden-Sydney College. What makes Farmville special is that all of these interests encourage a variety of tourists to come to town to dine, shop, and explore.”

CHALLENGES REMAIN

Though the community remains supportive of businesses in the Farmville area, the economic repercussions as a result of the coronavirus are stark.

Though initial unemployment claims in Prince Edward County have lowered, the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) reporting 97 initial claims the week of May 9 compared with 252 claims the week of April 4, the number of continued unemployment claims remain much higher.

The VEC recorded 938 continued unemployment claims the week of May 9, a nearly three-time jump from 379 claims a little over a month ago.

For businesses outside of Main Street, businesses without access to social media or online platforms, businesses that may have struggled or lacked financial resources prior to the pandemic, the economic future may not be as hopeful.

The priority for those in and outside Main Street is to create a thriving community, as well as grow businesses and their reach to those outside Farmville.

“Looking ahead, I believe that Farmville can be firmly placed to build on the reputation of a great place to live and work,” Cox said. “We have many people who care about the community and want to see the community thrive. By offering a variety of shopping, dining, and recreational activities we can continue to be a great place to live and a great place to visit.”