2008-08-28 / Letters

City needs vision, focus, global attitude

To the editor :

In response to Bradley Barber's comments in last week's issue of The News-Reporter, I would like to say that it is indeed very hard to come in to Washington as an eager entrepreneur, only to be excluded from all planning and the decision making process.

Since we've moved here, I have heard of many people who came before we did - filled with enthusiasm, ideas, energy and youth - and left utterly disgusted with nothing but sadness and a feeling that they have wasted their time (and I'm not talking about the financial burden that ensued). The fact is, when we first considered moving to this community, the city talked the talk: whatever we would need, we would get. "Worry about nothing. Just come. We'll help you out." Less than a month after opening the doors of our Lafayette Manor Restaurant, we were slapped with a letter from the same city: quit and desist. Now that we couldn't afford to move back, this was an order that could have broken all our dreams and hopes, as if they were no longer interested in us being here. We eventually worked things out, but it seems that I keep hearing different things from different people when it comes to the City's vision (and the County's for that matter). So here's my two-cents worth. Take it or leave it, but as a businessman and an entrepreneur, I may actually be a bit more qualified when it comes to business and economic development than some of our elected officials.

l Focus on bringing small businesses: it is easier to bring 10 employers who will employ 20 to 30 people, or 20 that will employ 10, than it is to bring one who will employ 200. In fact, once you get one, it is easier to get a second one, etc. Take downtown as an example: who wants to move to a square completely devoid of shops? But if all the store fronts are occupied, then people can't wait to grab a space and fight over them.

l Focus on supporting existing small businesses: it seems odd that the city would be ready to offer incentives to prospective industrial entrepreneurs, but not to small businesses. Correct me if I'm wrong, but large businesses don't require as much help as smaller ones. That's why they're large. Small business owners know too well the struggle to pay their rent, utilities and other liabilities on time, and for the most part do not qualify for any state or federal incentives or grants.

l Focus on tourism: tourists spend a lot of money in a town where they do not use the infrastructure: they do not use our school system, do not go to our hospital, do not water their yards with our water… The county and the city would benefit directly from the sales tax and higher property value that would come from being in a hot and desirable spot. It is clean money.

l Expand the downtown area: through traffic and parking control, you can turn our small square into a three block shopping paradise. Each store needs about four people to operate. If you created 20 new storefronts, how many employees would that be? How would it affect the tax revenue?

l Brand the town: What should we be known for? Why should people come here? The history aspect is great, and I try to steer every visitor to the museums, but how often will someone go to the same museum? In contrast, how often do you go back to a restaurant, a shop or a festival that you like? And how do you drive sales so as to increase the tax revenue? There's more tax money to be made through antiques, gifts, restaurants, and hotel rooms than through museum tickets. Helen, Georgia, branded itself as a Swiss Alps (or is it Bavarian?) village, and has beer fests and other attractions that fill the town completely (and, by the way, there's absolutely no parking downtown, but they have shuttles). Washington doesn't need to change the way it looks so dramatically, but it needs to find its identity and stick with it.

l Think global, act local: shop Washington. Although not just a City problem, it would help to see an effort from the City to promote its own community. The signs, advertising, lights and other improvements mostly sprang out from individual efforts, and were not backed by the City. The Chamber of Commerce has little or no budget for promotion, yet bear in mind that a striving downtown is more likely to attract potential industrial entrepreneurs. Think about it this way: they may build a plant, but they won't live here. Where will they stay, dine, and entertain themselves and their customers when they come to town? Believe me, this is a huge factor for them in choosing a community to settle in.

l Adopt a vision: Bradley Barber is absolutely correct on this point; we need to know where we are going so that we can steer in the right direction. A tangible 5-year program, with well defined steps would be a good start.

l Involve the concerned parties: too many decisions are made behind closed doors without asking the pros. Who better than the current business owners know what is needed and how it should be done? For instance, I am very concerned about the new hotel that will presumably be built next to the Pope Center. I welcome the competition, but I don't know what it will look like, and that, to me, is troubling. As a historic preservationist, I want to make sure it blends well with Washington's style, as this is what makes the town's charm and makes tourists want to come here. We do not need another ugly building, we have enough of those. And we don't need one that looks Mediterranean either, no matter how pretty. It's just not what we're all about.

In conclusion, we need to break the cycle. We need to make sure that people who do decide to come here can succeed, and know what lies ahead, so they can plan their future accordingly. I've talked a lot about our Downtown, but the truth is, if you want to clean up other sections of Washington, think about this: our Downtown is the moneymaking machine. That's the goose that lays the golden eggs. Feed it, and it will enrich everyone around it. Kill it, and you'll have nothing left anywhere. Who wants to move to Crawfordville?

Guilaume Slama, owner

Lafayette Manor Inn

Sophie's

The Fitzpatrick Hotel

Gigi's 8-28-2008-1p

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