Leesburg wasn't exactly known for its nightlife when Market Street Coffee opened in June 2003. Even though owner Pat McKinney kept the store open till 8 every night, barely a soul would stop by for a latte after dark -- until she brought in live musicians on Friday and Saturday nights.
The entertainment was such a success that McKinney, 54, approached the town of Leesburg about moving the performances outside and onto the Town Green. With help from several other businesses and a nonprofit group that tries to bring more people into Leesburg's downtown, the entertainment that started in McKinney's coffee shop became Acoustic on the Green, a free Saturday night series featuring Loudoun musicians.
This summer, it drew thousands of patrons and paid for itself with ads that businesses ran in programs for each event. Now, McKinney keeps her shop open past 10 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. She said the sale of late-night lattes and other coffee treats has tripled on concert nights.
"Government isn't going to do everything for you," said Marantha Edwards, Leesburg's tourism coordinator, who worked with the merchants on the concert series.
Edwards said that all Leesburg did was provide the Green and buy a $250 ad in one of the programs. The businesses and an organization devoted to helping Loudoun County's commercial centers help themselves did the rest.
The 20-month-old grass-roots program, called Main Street Loudoun, is part of a nationwide effort, started by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to revitalize historic downtowns such as Leesburg's and those in Loudoun's six other towns. The towns, say Main Street's supporters, can help give the nation's fastest-growing county a sense of place, a unique flavor, even as suburban homes spring up across the landscape. With a single county-paid employee and a $24,000 annual budget, Main Street Loudoun encourages events such as arts festivals and concerts that bring people into the county's downtowns.
Towns outside Loudoun, such as Warrenton and Manassas, have started Main Street programs, but the only other official countywide Main Street effort is in Oakland County, Mich.
"The best way [merchants in the towns] can increase their traffic in their individual stores is to give people more reasons to come into the town," said Jim Sisley, chairman of Leesburg Crossroads, an arm of Main Street Loudoun. Sisley is working as a volunteer on Leesburg's second Fall Into the Arts festival, a juried art show at the courthouse. "The greater the number of people who experience the historic buildings, the more money those businesses in the building make, and the more consistently they pay their rents," he said.
Sisley, a commercial real estate agent in Leesburg, said that he dedicates about a day per week to Crossroads and that some of its 37 other volunteers spend even more time on the organization. Healthy Main Street organizations in Loudoun County's other towns are also emerging.
Carl Fischer, 63, helped organize Purcellville's Arts in the Alley event in July as part of the Main Street effort. The day-long celebration, attended by more than 1,500 people, featured six bands and 34 visual artists in the heart of the fastest-growing town in Loudoun.
"It becomes a collaborative effort striving to maintain a sense of place in the face of the incredible growth that we've had," said Fischer, who owns a real estate business in Purcellville.
"What will make Purcellville viable in the long term is things that play on those unique characteristics and traits that are at risk in rampant growth: a sense of place, that small-town atmosphere where you know your neighbors," Fischer said.
Betsy Davis, who heads the Middleburg branch of Main Street Loudoun, said the program has encouraged collaboration between communities in the county's suburban, unincorporated east and its more rural towns in the west.
"We just get to know each other and learn about each other," said Davis, an owner of the Fun Shop, Middleburg's oldest retail store.
She said she hopes Main Street Loudoun's efforts will eventually bring tangible results such as more consistent road signs across the county and workshops for merchants on how to spruce up their downtown neighborhoods.
Much of this year's Main Street Loudoun budget has gone to a study of the county's towns by Arnett Muldrow & Associates, a planning firm based in Greenville, S.C. For weeks, consultant Tripp Muldrow pored over Loudoun County's history, economics and plans before spending a workweek evaluating each of its towns. In July, he visited the county, met with community leaders and assessed the business climate.
"It's striking how each of the towns is truly unique and can begin to develop its market niche," said Muldrow, who will return to Loudoun late this month to present his findings. He plans to issue a final report next month. "Everybody's got a different set of circumstances, a market angle they could pursue."
Martha Mason Semmes, Main Street Loudoun coordinator, said that after the study is complete, the communities are on their own as to what to do with the results. "Basically, it will give each of the towns a road map on activities they should be focusing on, and we'll be there to provide support and ideas," Semmes said.
Cheryl Kilday, president and chief executive of the Loudoun Convention & Visitors Association, said that as various aspects of the county's Main Street come together, Loudoun will develop more of the feel of a cohesive campus. "We can create a sense of place and demonstrate how our variety is part of our attraction," Kilday said. "And then our job is to direct visitors to cash registers."