On any given weekday, one can find Leesburg’s economic development and communications team taking to the streets of the county seat, putting a camera and mic in a local business owners’ face to give them what many have lacked over the past turbulent year—a marketing spotlight.
In fact, help with marketing, advertising and promotion of a shop local campaign was the second most common response of local businesses in a recent survey conducted by the town when asked how best the town could support them this year. The first request? More funding.
Economic Development Director Russell Seymour pointed to the town’s recent round of funding grants to local businesses. A mere 72 hours passed from when the applications went live until all of the $500,000 set aside by the Town Council had been spoken for. It was the third round of funding distributed by the town government since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold last spring, although the first that used local funds, not federal CARES Act funding, to distribute to businesses.
“When a locality puts money, whether it’s an incentive, a grant, or something along those lines, when you put it into the business community that’s an investment—an investment that pays pretty good dividends,” Seymour said. “What the town is doing is investing in a mechanism, i.e., our local business community. We’re putting it out there so that when that return on investment comes back, that return on investment covers everybody who lives here.”
Both Seymour and Mayor Kelly Burk acknowledged in a recent interview that the town’s pockets are not bottomless, with Leesburg staring down a $5 million deficit in the current fiscal year alone. Despite the desire to support local businesses, the town government and the council need to figure out ways to do that without spending more money.
Enter Locally Leesburg. It’s an initiative that Seymour said he had been toying around with for a while.
“We’re taking an opportunity to reintroduce Leesburg to a lot of people,” he said. “I’ve lived here just over three years, and I was just realizing there was so much I didn’t know you could do in Leesburg. That’s been a large part of where we wanted to go with this idea.”
Seymour said he and Business Retention and Development Manager Melanie Scoggins started with the idea of “let’s see how this goes.” They set out to record one local business owner a week speaking about their business and posting them to social media. Now, businesses are constantly reaching out to the economic development staff, with more than 30 applications of business owners who want to be featured. Seymour said more than likely the staff will soon have enough footage to be posting online multiple times a week.
“It’s really something that has taken off,” he said.
Seymour acknowledged that his feedback from local businesses right now has been their priority to “keep the lights on” every day. Many are not able to put funding toward marketing or advertising their businesses, so the exposure Locally Leesburg provides can be huge.
“What I always tell the businesses when we go to meet with them is ‘consider this a three-minute commercial’,” he said.
He credited Burk with being a cheerleader for local businesses, and making it out to each ribbon-cutting ceremony. Seymour said many localities have scrapped such events during of COVID, so it means a lot to local businesses that Leesburg is still celebrating them.
“If a business is willing to open their doors during the pandemic, I’ll be there,” Burk said.
Locally Leesburg is not the only tool in the town’s economic development toolbox, however.
Seymour said the staff has issued a Request for Proposals for a new website devoted to Leesburg’s economic development efforts. An online business directory has also been established, and the 11-question survey recently sent out to local businesses has been a great source of data for staff to work with. More than 190 town businesses have already responded.
“The good news is businesses are willing to share ideas and thoughts. They truly see the town is in a position now from the top down trying to find ways to help. By doing these surveys and getting information out it gives them an opportunity to have a sounding board,” Seymour said.
One of the survey questions gauged business owners’ interest in forming a business organization. That’s occurred in many forms in Leesburg over the years, from Leesburg Crossroads to the Downtown Improvement Association to the Leesburg Downtown Business Association and later the Historic Downtown Leesburg Association. The council in previous years had also explored starting a Main Street program, although there was never majority support to move that forward.
“There’s nothing that’s not on the table right now,” Seymour said of forming a new organization. He said some business owners are already discussing such a move, but reiterated that the focus for the majority now is making it through each week.
Seymour said he anticipates that the business landscape locally, as globally, will look a lot different in the next year. He is particularly concerned about retail businesses’ ability to stay afloat, with the continued rise of internet giant Amazon and other online competitors. The first step toward recovery is getting the majority of the population vaccinated, he said, getting people comfortable with going back out again, and hoping for a return to normalcy, whatever that looks like.
“I’m not expecting that there is a new normal,” he said. “We’re going to continue to work and be flexible enough to meet the needs as they rise. I’m not foolish enough to say ‘here’s what’s going to happen,’ and do nothing but focus on this. Things are going to change. The town’s been fortunate to be able to stay up with those changes.”
Seymour and Burk also said they are excited that the town is slowly getting back to hosting its popular events, which will serve to draw visitors to town-based shops and restaurants. The Flower & Garden Festival has been moved to Ida Lee Park Recreation Center this year, and the they are anxious for the Virginia Municipal League’s annual conference in October, which will be held in Leesburg for the first time. The event annually draws hundreds of elected officials throughout the state to a locality, and the host city or town usually does events highlighting all the destination has to offer.
Economic recovery imminent or not, Seymour said he does not plan to stop his aggressive business outreach approach.
“We’re going to continue to do everything we’re doing right now and then some,” he said. “The idea about marketing the destination, working with existing businesses, these are things that were always in the plan. It’s something that we’ve always done in working with them and pulling information from them. I don’t think that’s something that’s going to stop.”