Following a year of civil unrest and a pandemic that has rocked urban centers across the country, a Richmond booster group is looking to change the perception of downtown as a place of empty streets and boarded-up storefronts.
Venture Richmond has launched a promotional campaign highlighting the people and places that are keeping downtown open for business. Called “Faces of Your Downtown,” the series of ads and business profiles aim to reconnect people with the businesses and owners they may have missed while working from home.
The campaign is tied to Venture Richmond’s #MeetMeDowntown initiative, and adds to other efforts the nonprofit has made in the past year to encourage consumers to support the city’s small businesses, nonprofits and cultural attractions.
Lisa Sims, CEO of Venture Richmond, said the idea for the “Faces” campaign came from Amy Cabaniss, owner of Julep’s restaurant on East Grace Street.
“She said it would be so great if we could just remind people: you know these people, you know the business owners, you know these businesses, they need your help now,” Sims said.
“We have watched with dismay over the last year how some of the small businesses downtown are doing. We had COVID, obviously, so lots of major offices closed or sent employees to work from home. We have close to 80,000 people who work downtown, and when they go home and they’re not downtown, obviously, businesses suffer.”
Combine that with a drop in business travel that has meant fewer people filling area hotels, and Sims said the foot traffic that shops had been used to is no longer there, adding to a perception that downtown is closed or unsafe.
Sims said the civil unrest of the past year, with demonstrations that inevitably reached downtown and its government buildings, further fueled such perceptions, from what she and her staff has heard from business owners and customers.
“We have heard that, with the social justice demonstrations this summer, perhaps some people might have felt, with marches and that sort of thing, that it was not a safe place to be,” Sims said. “We have not found that to be true, obviously, but the perception probably remains.”
In timing the campaign, Sims added, “We wanted to wait until we felt that it was OK, that people could come back downtown and there would be enough room in restaurants and stores and that people could actually conduct business because things would be open.”
Produced in-house, the campaign rolled out late last year with photos and profiles of such people and places as Cindy Kalfoglou of Gus’s Shoe Repair, Janine Bell of Elegba Folklore Society, Katie Ukrop of Quirk Hotel and Gallery, and Barksdale “Barky” Haggins of Barky’s Record Shop.
Others featured include Daniel Griffin of Havana ’59, David Waller of Waller & Co. Jewelers, Jennie Skinner of Sefton Coffee Co., Herman Baskerville of Big Herm’s Kitchen, and customers at Saadia’s Juicebox & Yoga Bar.
Photographer Jay Paul was enlisted to take the photos and provided content for the write-ups. Sims said a second wave of ads featuring other businesses and owners is set to roll out in early February.
“We’re trying to prime the pump a little bit,” Sims said. “When more people begin to be vaccinated, when people feel safer, when the people who work in those tall buildings downtown start coming back to work, we want them to remember all of these businesses. And frankly, we want people to come downtown now. Downtown is open for business.”
Sims said response to the campaign has been positive, with several shops reporting business received from the ads.
“We have heard from some people who have said that someone reached out to them, saw the ad, and came in and made a major purchase, so we hope it’s working,” she said.
“I think sometimes people think of a municipality as this big monolithic thing, and downtown, it’s just a series of buildings with people in them. The people who are there, none of this is any fault of theirs,” she said. “Many of them have invested everything they have in these businesses.”
Sims acknowledged that it could take more than vaccines for downtown to return to a pre-pandemic state. But she noted that Richmond is not alone in that challenge.
“We are part of the International Downtown Association, and I can assure you there is not one downtown in the United States that has not been through exactly what we’re going through,” she said. “I don’t want people to think that this is just all about Richmond. It’s not. It’s every urban area, particularly the very specific downtown areas, that are suffering, and it is across the board. It’s everywhere.”