As businesses in the area gear up for an economic slowdown, merchants along Arlington's Columbia Pike are reporting increases in both income and sales.
"In a recession, what sells are lower prices, and we've always had lower prices along the pike," said Lauren Adkins, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. "In times like these, we get rewarded for having honest and fair prices."
The nonprofit coalition of civic associations, property owners and businesses in the Columbia Pike area is dedicated to fostering the pike's economic growth.
The group originally was organized as a citizen task force in 1985 to try to improve Columbia Pike's declining business district.
Residents wanted to maintain neighborhood shops without overdeveloping the area, as they feel has happened in Rosslyn.
"The citizens wanted to be involved. Our organization is not a business group that brought in citizens, but a civic association that reached out and brought in business," Adkins said. "The community wanted to help define the retail and business environment so that it would not bring negative lifestyle changes but positive lifestyle changes" into the neighborhoods.
The three-mile corridor, from Carlin Springs Road to Washington Boulevard, houses more than 450 businesses. The area specializes in "convenience retail" establishments, such as laundries and groceries, that shoppers use a few times a week. Consumers spend about $464 million annually along the pike and in the surrounding area.
Working with the Arlington government, the coalition helped implement a $3.1 million county-funded program to install brick sidewalks and plant trees along Columbia Pike. The project also includes putting the pike's utility wiring underground.
The wires and utility poles not only are considered unsightly but need more maintenance. Trees must be kept trimmed around the wires, warping their appearance. Wires and poles are often damaged during storms.
"South Arlington is one of the last close-in, underdeveloped areas near Washington," said coalition Vice President William J. Dennehy. "As development increases, the sky would have become dark because of the increased wires."
The group anticipates that the wiring project will be completed in January at a cost of about $2.5 million. Making the pike more appealing will attract customers, the group says, particularly pedestrians, who make up about 25 percent of area shoppers.
"What we're trying to do is wrestle this street back from the car," Adkins said. Businesses "are starting to reap the benefits of the revitalization changes."
Columbia Pike is a haven for small businesses, especially as businesses in other parts of Arlington are forced out by development and rising rents. Columbia Pike's retail space costs about $20 to $25 a foot and office space $13 to $18 a foot.
"Wilson Boulevard's small businesses are being displaced and relocating to a less-expensive area," Dennehy said.
The coalition provides technical assistance to help businesses attract customers. The group also produces joint advertising campaigns such as the Directory of Businesses and Services, published in October 1989. More than 21,000 copies were sent to residents in the 22204 Zip code area. A restaurant directory will be published in February.
The directories include address listings, menu descriptions and coupons. Reaching customers by mail is less expensive and more direct for business owners.
The coalition offers referrals to businesses and has conducted an independent marketing survey detailing office and retail growth potential. The group also acts as a liaison between business owners and the county.
"We have all these different cultures trying to do business and to get established," Adkins said. "We're a human bridge to the government bureaucracy."
The organization sponsors special events, including "Like the Pike Week," an annual celebration for coalition members, and the "Columbus Day Street Fair," the kickoff event for Arlington's International Month, featuring the only community-wide parade in the county.
The organization's $80,000 annual budget is partially funded by membership dues -- 50 cents for civic associations, $10 for individual memberships and $75 to $1,000 for businesses and property owners. Arlington County gives the coalition $1.50 for every dollar the group raises privately.
The coalition has a 22-member board of directors, with an additional 57 members staffing the group's committees. Members work 1,262 volunteer hours to improve the area and its image.
"Five years down the road, we see strong pockets of pedestrian activity where people can ditch the car, circulate on foot and accomplish errands," Adkins said. "The pike is becoming more energetic, a vital shopping district and a fun, funky place to hang out."