A View from Water Street. Photo credit: Michael Sheeler.

A View from Water Street. Photo credit: Michael Sheeler.

After waiting several months, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance finally got the word that a $15,000 grant from the Virginia Dept. of Housing and Community Development will be coming our way!

The Building Entrepreneurial Economies grant will help fund bringing an economic development expert to the community to assist with data collection and analysis so we can get what we need to be more strategic and informed in our business assistance and recruitment efforts.

I always feel giddy when winning a grant since the application processes are so competitive. But, the process behind the project has been equally as exciting.

Knowing that HDR wanted to take our successful Retail Renaissance business assistance program to the next level, we approached the staff with the economic development offices of the City of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. Both had expressed an interest in expanding the program beyond downtown and were eager to work with us. The Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center and James Madison University who built and delivered the first Retail Renaissance, in partnership with HDR, were also on board to do it again. With all the right partners in place, we just needed funding.

One of the most important things we want to do at HDR is to use key economic data like demographics, spending patterns, revenue lost to retailers outside of the downtown, and customer feedback to inform our work. If we know who is shopping here, who could be shopping here, and what people are buying elsewhere, we can recruit new businesses more strategically and help existing businesses to reach untapped customers and to expand their products so that people spending money outside of the community can spend it here.

The wonky name for all of this is “market analysis.” With the market analysis data and recommendations in hand, we can start taking our work to the next level and begin planning our next phase of Retail Renaissance (and more). Strengthening downtown businesses is a significant goal, but this data can also help us market downtown as a whole to new people and attract them to our events.

Aerial view of downtown

Aerial view of downtown

The other cool element of this partnership is that downtown, the City of Harrisonburg, and Rockingham County will be working together so all ships rise. The final outcomes of our work will be ideas for how we can grow our retailers and retail corridors in a way that meet consumer needs, fill the retail black holes, and compete where it makes sense.

Each partner will bring financial and human resources to the table. We plan to gather some of the easily obtainable data ourselves as well as to work with local college students on data research to cut down on costs. By time we are done, we hope to have a solid snapshot of the area and new areas of opportunity.

I am so appreciative of the eagerness of the partners involved to help make this happen. As someone who worked in city and county governments as well as at a national nonprofit, I haven’t seen close collaborations among multiple municipalities quite like this. It is more the norm to compete with surrounding areas rather than work together. Once again, Harrisonburg lives up to being the Friendly City. 

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