In recent months, concern has been expressed over the loss of three downtown Leesburg retail shops have moved out of town. At the same time, two King Street’s mainstays, Caulkins Jewelers and the Leesburg Diner have been temporarily relocated or closed following a fire in June.
Despite the concerns over the recent turnover, merchants remain buoyant about the downtown’s future. They’ve seen overall growth throughout the last few years, and hope to combine their efforts and ideas to ensure the heart of the town’s future is bright.
To continue the conversation about the downtown climate, started with a public-private forum in September, the Leesburg Economic Development Commission will hold a Jan. 11 forum on how to attract and retain downtown businesses.
“The purpose is to give merchants the opportunity to talk about their ideas, what they need to boost the downtown,” town Economic Development Director Marantha Edwards said.
Despite some pessimism earlier this year, downtown merchants sound optimistic about what lies ahead. In recent interviews, many talked about the vibrancy of the eclectic mix of restaurants, retailers and offices. They pointed to the combination of old and new stores, noting the surprising number of businesses that have been in existence for a decade or longer.
Two of the downtown’s largest property owners—Mike O’Connor, who owns and operates the Leesburg Diner and Palio’s Ristorante Italiano, and commercial Realtor Don Devine, owner of the Tally Ho Theatre—are also confident of the downtown’s future.
“Leesburg is primed for a true renaissance,” O’Connor said. “I have people coming from New York with all sorts of venture propositions—it’s the place to be,” he said, citing its position as the seat of the one of the fastest growing counties in the country. The planned expansion of county’s courts complex and a number of other downtown development projects will increase foot traffic, he added. “It’s up to us to make that happen.”
O’Connor advocates a number of measures to increase the downtown’s appeal: extend shops’ hours, and keep a good mix of service- and entertainment-oriented businesses to become a unique destination venue.
The town government’s role could include working with outside developers as they bring in companies, to support and promote the historic downtown, as well as to examine tax incentives to attract a mix of businesses. Old Town Alexandria would be a good model, O’Connor suggested.
“I’m bullish on the future of downtown,” he said.
Devine echoed his enthusiasm, noting the sidewalk traffic has doubled over the past few years, and he expects to do even better this year at the Tally Ho concert hall. He has signed a new tenant for the former Downs & Company space, and notes the King Street Oyster Bar and Grill in the former Cooley Gallery space is slated to open this month.
Devine, who grew up in a sleepier Leesburg, said the heart of the town has become more of a night life destination.
“People need to be aware the demographics and the patterns of Leesburg have changed,” he said.
His concert venue brings in a number of sold-out shows, and many patrons and musicians themselves come from far afield. “They love the town; they park and walk to restaurants—then they go on Facebook or Twitter to spread the word,” he said.
Linda Conry, whose parents helped open the Leesburg Antique Emporium 17 years ago, also is optimistic about the downtown’s future, but noted there are opportunities for growth.
“I think [the downtown] is doing well, with different restaurants and wine bars,” she said. She’d like to see more antique shops in addition to Black Shutter Antiques and more boutiques than Madisonbelle and Lou Lou, as well as more restaurants.
Kevin Malone, proprietor of Tuscarora Mill Restaurant at Market Station, approaching its 30th anniversary this month, says his customers find the downtown charming. They like the shops—although they do have a concern about parking. Malone urges more restaurants and more variety of dining opportunities, as well as more artistic ventures.
“The more people we draw to Leesburg, the better. We’ve come a long way—I still love being here,” he said.
Paige Buscema has operated her Eyetopia eye wear company for 13 years, currently at the eastern end of Loudoun Street. She is amazed at the number of businesses that have been downtown for five years and 25 years or more. “That shows longevity,” she said.
She’s not bothered by the recent vacancies—that’s just normal ebb and flow. She also likes that it’s small start-ups that are attracted to the downtown, not franchises.
“The downtown has a huge potential to continue, we’ve reached an important tipping point—it’s about a lot of active businesses understanding their clients and catering to them,” she said.
Anita Henry, of Rouge Boutique and Spa on South King Street, agreed wholeheartedly. “We have to maintain a level and standard of business, be positive and have faith and trust in your customers. They are savvy—they research, they watch, and they know. We have to know who we are catering to; they expect it and will come back.”
Buscema cited the success of relative newcomer Finch Sewing Studio, which has now expanded to take over an entire building on West Loudoun Street. “They’ve grown with client demand and brought in new product,” she said, calling Finch a good example of a young business that comes in and thrives through understanding its clientele.
The town has started quarterly reports, exclusively for the downtown, highlighting progress on items such as improvement projects and increased trash pick ups.
“We want to put a brighter light on it,” Edwards said. “We see wonderful opportunities for the downtown.”
Sponsored by the town’s Economic Development Commission, the Jan. 11 downtown forum will be held from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. at the Ida Lee Park Recreation Center.
Contact Margaret Morton at email@example.com.