Commission receives grant for study

The Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission received a $7,500 grant from the commonwealth to study consumer spending habits and areas of growth for outdoor recreation businesses in area communities.

The commission received a planning grant from the Building Entrepreneurial Economies program administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community last week. The commission will use the money to help fund a $17,253 research project to identify consumer spending habits and “gaps” between supply and demand in the outdoor recreation industry in Berryville, Front Royal and Strasburg.

Martha Shickle, director of the regional commission, said this the first time the commission has received the grant and it will help develop a “tool kit” for the towns to develop “specific strategies … to promote small business development.”

“The tool kit will be based upon the research performed for the participating localities, but promoted as a resource among all communities in the northern Shenandoah Valley as the program will hopefully expand,” Shickle said.

Shickle said communities, using the data collected from the project, could create tourism zones, provide specialized business counseling or focus on capital investments to promote outdoor recreation businesses. She said implementing the grant would require an assortment of different entities.

“In addition to the quantitative accomplishments we anticipate during the project period, we also believe that this opportunity will serve as a unifying force which can promote cooperation among local governments, stakeholder groups and businesses to consider the importance of promoting the region as a strong place to do business,” she said.

The commission will be partnering with the Lord Fairfax Small Business Development Center to conduct the research, as well as to match the remaining $9,753 to fund the project.

Jim Kraft, director of the center, said the center will look at the consumer spending habits on outdoor recreation businesses in the three communities, identify the “gaps” where the supply of services and goods are not meeting demand and develop three local seminars to educate business owners, using the findings of the study.

“In a consumer expenditure study, there’s several different sources that use national statistics and put together what folks are buying for outdoor recreation, like toothpaste and soap and such,” he said.

Kraft added, “In a gap study, they look at what’s missing … if the demand is more than the supply, then you got people leaving the area to fulfill that wish. If the supply is more than demand, then there is no reason for people to leave, but people might come into the area to buy the product.”

Kraft said the center would be looking at data from the Environmental Systems Research Institute, a supplier of demographic software, to analyze spending trends in the three towns. He said while outdoor recreation businesses do depend on tourists’ dollars, looking at local spending habits is a good place to start.

“The theory is if locals are doing it, other people will come in and do it,” he said. “If locals shop your downtown, tourists, when they come, will shop the downtown also.”

Kraft said given the outdoor recreation options in the northern Shenandoah Valley, such as Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington National Forest, there is a need to look into this data. He said the major outcome he hopes to see in the project is to “see if it’s viable for these communities to really accelerate and bring in the tourism trade.”

Jay McKinley, Strasburg’s interim town manager, said it is too early to tell what the town’s role will be in the project.

“At this point, we’re going to have to reach to the commission to determine what our role will be,” he said. “We will be getting our planning and zoning administrator to communicate with Martha and take it from there.”

Steve Burke, the Front Royal town manager, said the town will “provide any and all information” the center or commission may need, at no cost to the towns since all three are a part of the commission.

“Whatever the regional commission will deem helpful, we will try to provide them with it,” he said. “The commission hasn’t gotten into the project yet, so we’re not sure what they’ll be requesting.”

Christy Dunkle, assistant town manager for Berryville, said the town will “participate pretty heavily” in the project.

“Tourism is an industry the town and county have been wanting to bump up,” she said. “One of the things we’re looking into is trying to get more lodging accommodations in the town.”

Both Burke and Dunkle said one of the outcomes they hope to see from the studies will be marketing outdoor recreation on a regional level. Amanda Pearson, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, said “regional collaboration” is one of the considerations her agency has when awarding the grants.

“The state really does look at collaboration and love regionalism,” she said. “Seeing localities working together in a particular region is appealing to the state … industries don’t look at county lines, they look at what the region offers as a whole.”

Pearson said the planning grant could lead to more grants in the future, such as the Building Entrepreneurial Economies Implementation or Innovation grants.

“Sometimes an organization will start with the planning grant and work their way up to the implementation or the innovation grants,” she said.

Twelve grants were awarded with Building Entrepreneurial Economies grants around the state, totaling $226,000. Six were planning grants, totaling $45,000, four were implementation grants, totaling $91,000 and two were innovation grants, totaling $90,000.

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com