Old Town Manassas Merchants Join Project to Promote Business

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009

Merchants in Old Town Manassas have joined a national campaign meant to get shoppers to stop and think -- and not just about their purchases.

Instead, owners of the mom and pop stores that make up the city's historic Main Street area are asking customers whether they would be missed if the Old Town business community shut down.

The question, Old Town merchants said, is one independent business owners across America are asking as part of the recently launched 3/50 Project, which encourages people to buy local and save the brick and mortar stores.

"This is an awareness campaign with a simple but powerful message," said Joanne Wunderly, Old Town Business Association president and owner of The Things I Love. "Years ago, this was the way it was. You shopped and supported the people you knew. I think this is a wonderful campaign, and we want this to work for us."

The 3/50 Project asks customers to pick three of their favorite independently owned shops or restaurants and spend $50 a month to help them weather the slowdown. Merchants say the other big selling point is that when shoppers buy local, they are stimulating the local economy.

Officials behind the 3/50 Project said that for every $100 spent in independently owned stores, $68 returns to the community through taxes, payroll and other expenditures. If customers shop at chains, only $43 stays local, they said.

"I think this campaign is something that is very appropriate for the economic times we are in," said Bob Chase, sales manager at Prospero's Books. "We have pride in our local schools and sports teams, and now we need to have that same attitude toward businesses."

Old Town merchants said the economic slump is particularly rough on small businesses that don't have the money chains do to advertise and keep people coming through the doors. Cash flow is also a lot more critical to small businesses, so any hit is more dire, they said.

Chase said it was a dismal first quarter for the bookstore, which opened in 2005. But sales are starting to pick up, Chase said, and he has high hopes that the campaign will bring more business to Old Town.

Manassas Commissioner of the Revenue John P. Grzejka said revenue in Old Town is lower than in years past but is starting to turn around.

During the first half of this year, overall revenue in Old Town was down 5.4 percent from the same period the year before, compared with down 8 percent during the first half of 2008. When looking at the same two time frames, retail is down 2 percent, compared with being down 7.2 percent last year. Meals tax revenue is down 5.2 percent, compared with down 5.6 percent last year. Lodging is down 12.8 percent, compared with down 30 percent in 2008.

"I am seeing an improvement now, though spending is not as good as it was a few years ago," Wunderly said. "But I think we have what it takes to survive. We just need to bring people here, and I think the 3/50 Project will help with that."

Founded by retail consultant and former business owner Cinda Baxter, the 3/50 Project has more than 11,000 business supporters, including some from Gainesville, Woodbridge and Occoquan. Tired of the "doom and gloom" constantly in the news, Baxter said, she launched the campaign in March, hoping it would get people spending and creating positive change in their communities.

"It's important to not get sucked into the grim news," the Minneapolis resident said. "We all know things are bad, but I thought: What can we do to turn it around? . . . That's when I wrote a blog and created the 3/50 Project."

Baxter said that she shared her concept with a few business friends and that the idea took off, spread by word of mouth across the country. Baxter said the project is not meant to push people away from big-box stores but to get shoppers to find a balance.

"I've seen entire cities pull together to run promotions," she said. "This is bringing dry cleaners, restaurants and retailers together under one banner because they all share the same need to get customers back through the door."

Old Town merchants have created buttons and printed 5,000 fliers to get the message across. The next step is to get a banner on Center Street.

"Because of the 3/50 Project, more people will probably visit Old Town Manassas to learn what we have to offer," said Mary Reilly of Creative Brush Studio. Their "purchases will be helping to put money back into the local economy as well as keep local businesses open, and the customers will be happy with their find. It is a win-win situation for everyone."

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