The 33-question survey was a long one, with some respondents spending more than an hour to complete it. But the majority of downtown business and property owners took the time, with the 61 respondents representing a 77 percent response rate — participation that Town Manager Paige Dowling said is “almost unheard of.”
Questions covered everything from parking to town sewer to Main Street Association events, garnering responses ranging from extremely negative to extremely positive. But one thing that respondents seemed to agree on was that the town needs a merchants association — excluding those who said the question did not apply to them, 94 percent agreed such an organization is needed.
“A merchants association would be a way for them to communicate and do cross-promotions and partnering just focused on business and improving the business climate,” said Dowling, who also serves as director of the Main Street Association.
While the Main Street Association has to split its focus among four goals — organization, promotions, economic restructuring and design — a merchants association would be a way for business owners to focus on the topics that most directly impact their sales. Like pooling money for billboard advertisements promoting the downtown as a whole, or coordinating sales incentives between stores.
Such a group would also help build the team spirit downtown, said John Bubacz, who owns Signature Brew Coffee Roasting Company.
“I don’t know every merchant’s name, and we’re all within a mile of each other,” Bubacz said.
Though as with anything, time is always an issue for business owners already struggling to balance their work and personal lives.
“I think the idea is great, but it’s hard for me being a business owner and brand new mom,” said Tammy Fuller of Sassy Frass Consignment.
There’s also some uncertainty as to what form, exactly, a merchants association might take. And after all, Bubacz said, aren’t the functions of a merchants association already contained within the Main Street Association?
“My confusion as a merchant underscores the need for a more cohesive group,” he said.
Dowling pictures a merchants association as a group that would be related to, but not part of, the Main Street Association. The group could run its dollars through the Main Street Association, using the association’s status as a nonprofit, but would have some leeway outside the structured requirements of the Main Street Association. That would mean it could also be independent of the town, which provides 90 percent of the funding for the Main Street Association and has its manager, Dowling, double as director.
But the merchants association could also end up being part of the existing Main Street Association, said the association’s president David Nestler. That’s how he sees it going, at least to start.
“I think initially the goal is to get it kick-started under the promotions committee and some other committees,” said Nestler.
Long-term could be a different story, but at this point it’s hard to say.
“Our agenda for the next year is going to be almost completely dictated by the results of that survey,” he said.
Right now, the association’s committees are in the process of meeting to decide just what the results have dictated. They’ll come up with some goals and priorities, and move forward from there.
By the numbers
A recently completed survey compiled the thoughts of 61 Sylva merchants on the Main Street Association, merchant cooperation, town policies, traffic and a slew of other topics of importance to downtown business. Here’s a sampling of their responses:
• 42 percent said they were not satisfied with communication and cooperation among downtown merchants. Only 25 percent said they were satisfied.
• 94 percent of those to whom the question applied said there should be a merchants association in Sylva, while 91 percent of those to whom the question applied said they would plan to be involved in such a group.
• 48 percent said they were satisfied with the town’s codes, policies and enforcement, while 19 percent said they were unsatisfied.
• 34 percent said they’re unsatisfied with Main Street Association services while 20 percent said they’re satisfied.
• 65 percent said they were satisfied with town services, while only 16 percent said they were unsatisfied.
• 61 percent of those to whom the question applied said their sales have increased over the past year.
• 12 of the 28 responses to a question about what would make the downtown area more attractive for pedestrians mentioned appearance- and beautification-related issues.
Main Street Association needs a bigger presence
One of the main points from a recent survey of downtown business owners is that the Sylva Main Street Association needs to do a better job of plugging itself, said the association’s president David Nestler.
“Not many of our merchants were aware that the Main Street Association of Sylva was operating,” said Nestler, who owns Tree of Life Woodworks. “I think the problem was a lot of people weren’t aware that they were aware of it.”
For example, he said, the association puts on events such as Greening Up the Mountains. With Main Street all blocked off and live music drifting through town, it’s impossible not to know that there’s a festival going on. But the association doesn’t make a point of advertising that they’re the organization behind it all.
“That was a big takeaway, that we needed to do more self-promotion,” he said.
More Main Street events like Greening Up The Mountains might be in Sylva’s future, too, Nestler said. Many survey respondents were clear about that.
“Events, events, events,” said one respondent in answer to a question about what one thing could improve their business.
“Host more events to bring people downtown,” said another.
“Not enough MAIN STREET events,” said a third. “Too many events are taken away to Bridge Park or elsewhere.”
Similar comments proliferated throughout the survey responses.
A fall festival could be a possible newcomer, Nestler said. The association will also look at its existing event roster to make sure its effort go to unique events, rather than run-of-the-mill offerings.
“I think we’re going to do away with Chili Fest and come up with something that is more specific to Sylva rather than an event that a lot of other towns have,” he said.