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Posted February 25, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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A fork in the road

Betty and Lebert Morris
Betty and Lebert Morris of Front Royal walk along Main and Chester Streets in Front Royal on Tuesday. Downtown merchants are feeling the effects of the recession and are banding together to market their businesses. Rich Cooley/Daily

Maggie Sill, owner of Heaven Sent Shoppe
Maggie Sill, owner of Heaven Sent Shoppe, looks outside her storefront window on Chester Street in Front Royal on Monday. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Ben Orcutt -- Daily Staff Writer

FRONT ROYAL -- Downtown merchants are joining forces to map out survival strategies during the sagging economy.

Craig Laird, owner of Royal Oak Computers at 131 E. Main St., said times are as tough as he's seen them.

"I've been down here for about 20 years and this is really the worst that I've seen the economy," he said. "Cash-flow-wise, it's really serious.

"The Main Street merchants have banded together to help themselves, and we are trying things that involve a low buy-in for the merchants where it doesn't cost very much money to help get the word out and do group advertising, co-op advertising."

One of the keys, Laird said, is to figure low-cost ways of reaching consumers.

"Every business is different, and every business has a way of thinking outside of the box to attract people during a recession," Laird said.

For example, Laird said Soul Mountain Cafe at 300 E. Main St. is offering a stimulus package menu for a reasonable price.

Other merchants, like Royal Oak Computers, are becoming more service-oriented as consumers try to make products they already have last longer, Laird said.

"Like the merchants banding together in this economy, the community itself has to band together," Laird added. "In order to help economic stimulus overall, then we have to shop more locally. We have to take care of our inner merchants. We have to take care of businesses that are here."

Kathy Soranzo, owner of Valley Finds at 218 E. Main St., has been attending strategy meetings with other downtown merchants.

Soranzo says in an e-mail that she wants to take more advantage of Internet sites like Craigs List and eBay for placing her furniture and home decor items, in addition to "cross-marketing with other merchants downtown, as well as similar shops in surrounding areas."

Her biggest wish, Soranzo says, is for signs to be placed on Interstates 66 and 81 informing motorists of Front Royal's historic downtown district.

Steve and Maggie Sill have been operating Heaven Sent Shoppe at 119 Chester St. for two years. The couple also run Americana Signs and sell Amish furniture out of the same location.

Like Laird, Mrs. Sill said the current economy has been as rough on her business, which has been in existence nearly 14 years.

"We had a string of zero [sales] days, when all the years before now we've never had a zero day," she said. "We've been meeting for five weeks, and we started out with probably 15 merchants and last week it was only three. We plan to put together some things that will draw people downtown."

One of the events is a Civil War re-enactment, which is being spearheaded by Brandon McCrary, owner of Weasel Creek Outfitters, located at 221 E. Main St.

"We have developed a newsletter, called the Downtown Merchants Dispatch," Mrs. Sill added. "We are trying to communicate with the other merchants to encourage them to be kind of a cheering section for each other and tell 'em not to give up. But I know for some of them it may be too late. We're really hoping that they'll hang in there if they possibly can at all."

The thought of businesses going under weighs on merchants' minds, Mrs. Sill said.

"We're concerned that it could really turn into a ghost town where undesirable people may start hanging out downtown, and then the property values start going down and not only on Main Street, but in the neighborhoods," she said. "And then you have more crime."

Betty Dameron, owner of South by Southwest, rents space from Heaven Sent, and she, too, is concerned about how to sell her wares during tough times.

"It's authentic Native American art and jewelry and pottery and so therefore it is costly," Dameron said. "They pay a bill and not buy a necklace, or pay a bill and not buy a ring."

Like others, Dameron said one of her strategies is to advertise "and let people know I do carry authentic Native American jewelry and it is an investment. It's not something that is going to break or not increase in value."

The key, Dameron said, is to market Front Royal as a destination, especially to those close enough to make a day trip.

"We need to let people know that we're here," she said.

True to her Christian bookstore ministry, Mrs. Sill wants downtown merchants to remain positive.

"I just think you can't give up," she said. "I'm encouraged by the people that have that attitude, and it really is an attitude."

Contact Ben Orcutt at borcutt@nvdaily.com

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