A newly-formed group of three Middleburg town council members, two town administrators and six other local business and professional leaders recently held its first organizational meeting.
The main mission of the Middleburg Futures Group: develop long-term strategies to attract new businesses and more visitors to a quaint, historic village that currently has a number of vacant retail stores and empty commercial office spaces.
The Futures group is the brainchild of Middleburg resident Bridge Littleton, who started his first term on the town council last July. The council had formed an economic development committee several years ago, and the Middleburg Business and Professional Association (MBPA) also has been involved in the effort to add more merchants and businesses and attract more visitors. The Futures group was formed in an attempt to get everyone on the same economic page.
They met for more than four hours late last month at the National Sporting Library and Museum (NSLM) in Middleburg and Littleton said afterward, “everyone is really excited about this.
“All of us have shared the same goal of improving business in town. I’ve been thinking about trying to do something like this for quite a while. What if we could all get together, identify the three or four common strategies we can align on and maximize the resources we can all bring to the table.
“We have residents, we have visitors and we have business owners. The goal is to improve the economic and business environment for the benefit of those three stake holders. We also want to stay true to who we are and what our identity is as a small, unique community-focused town.”
Two weeks go, the group sent out an e-mail survey to both local residents, merchants and other businesses all around the Middleburg area in Loudoun and Fauquier counties. So far, there have been more than 1,000 responses, coming from near and far, within an hour of Middleburg and closer.
“This was an organizational meeting with everyone getting on the same page and trying to understand the scope of what we want to tackle,” Littleton said. “What is it we see Middleburg looking like in 2020 or 2021? What is it that the group and the community at large wants to see four years from now?”
Anecdotally, many retail merchants, restaurant owners and other businesses have expressed concerns about exorbitant rents, not enough parking, disruption caused by a major nine-month Virginia Department of Transportation project last year to fix streets and other infrastructure, and the inconsistency in the days and hours many businesses and restaurants are open. All of that, some say, has forced several merchants to move elsewhere or simply close down, and some potential consumers to stay away.
In recent weeks, the town has experienced a welcome burst of good news with announcements that three new restaurants are planning to open—two on Washington Street/Route 50, the main thoroughfare—over the next four months.
The Thaiverse restaurant in Lovettsville, specializing in Thai cuisine, is opening a second location in the former French Hound restaurant (moving to Leesburg) at the corner of Madison and Federal streets. The King Street Oyster Bar in Leesburg recently announced it will add a second restaurant, moving into the original Middleburg Bank building in the center of town.
And the Whole Ox, a high-end butcher emporium and restaurant in Marshall, is also opening an Italian restaurant in Middleburg called Bue (Italian for ox), also on Washington Street.
Still, there was some bad food news recently, as well. The Federal Street Cafe, serving breakfast and lunch, shut its doors after two years in operation. According to owner Zan Dial, an increase in rent from $2,000 to $2,800 by the building’s owners forced him to close down.
The new Middleburg Futures Group obviously hopes to reverse that trend. Littleton said the first order of business will be to identify the most significant problems.
“I’m a big data person, and I believe in making data-driven decisions,” he said. “I’d like to find three or four things that are the highest priorities on everyone’s list, and the data from the survey and other places will help us do that.”
A law school graduate with an entrepreneurial bent, Littleton is the son of long-time Middleburg builder and resident Trowbridge Littleton, who also spent a number of years on the town council. Bridge Littleton said his group has no specific timetable, but that 18 months to two years seems like a realistic goal to both identify and start dealing with the major concerns.
The survey, he added, will be a huge help. So far, “what’s been great about the survey is that we’re finding what local people love about Middleburg is also why visitors want to come here. It’s a piece of the small town life they don’t have and want to experience.”
Final survey results will not be known for several weeks, but preliminary indications also show that many respondents say they’re pulled toward the town by events like art fairs, sidewalk sales, Christmas in Middleburg, Shakespeare in the ‘Burg, outdoor concerts at the Middleburg Community Center and exhibits at the NSLM.
Attracting new business also is a major mission for the new group.
“How to do that is completely different than engaging with the public to come to town and spend money,” Littleton said. “Again, we need to see the data, talk to people and then move ahead.”
Long-time town employee Cindy Pearson, the current economic development director, among her many other significant responsibilities, is retiring later this year but is included in the new Futures group, along with town planning director Eric Combs. The town is currently interviewing candidates for the position of director of economic and business development and Littleton expects the new hire will work closely with th new group.
“My dream is that we’ll be able to come up with a plan that will perpetuate itself,” Littleton said. “And when new people come in, their ideas will also be incorporated. This is a great place, a very unique place, and we want to keep it that way.”
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at email@example.com