When the Governor issued the stay-at-home order closing restaurants and retail shops in March 2020, the organizers of Charles Town Now (CTN) moved quickly to implement a curbside takeout and gift card program. One year later CTN noted the anniversary with the slogan “One Year, Still Here.” The group’s plucky attitude helped earn Charles Town a second place award nationally in the American Express “Order In, Help Out Innovation Challenge.” Entries were judged on strategy, innovation, engagement, feasibility, and results.
Liz Cook, whose job as Downtown Coordinator for the City of Charles Town also includes the role of Program Director for CTN, described how the curbside program came together: “Within 24 hours, the City approved the signs, and we had the cones and signs on the streets within 48 hours. Every day it was just a group of people asking how do we make it easy to shop and spend money downtown? We were live [on social media] every day, then we produced the music video [Rocking That Curbside] that took off. It just happened organically.” Cook noted that the results were particularly tangible: “We lost only one business directly related to the pandemic. And our second place award is impressive when you compare the size of Charles Town to the other cities who competed [all of the other winners have 4 to 30 times the population of Charles Town].” To paraphrase the song lyrics in the video, Charles Town rocked.
Starting with Kindness
Cook recalls getting involved with CTN as a volunteer with the 2017 “Be Kind” campaign organized by the Kiwanis Club. “I was talking with the business owners. Everyone wanted to work together, and the communication was there, but they said we need someone to pull this together.” At the same time, Charles Town was ready to take the final step to become accredited as a Main Street America (MSA) Community. The MSA program provides a framework for revitalizing downtowns, as well as a network of resources to assist communities to develop strategies tailored to their specific situations. Cook gave credit to CTN board member Ann Paonessa for starting the city on the pathway to the process in 2009, which resulted in the 2018 accreditation. “It took nine years — it’s about learning to use the toolkit, a process, and every year we submit plans and reports of our successes to keep the accreditation.” Daphne Wahl, the owner of Art Deco Dekor (114 E Liberty St) and president of the CTN board of directors described what the Main Street designation means for the city and how it works: “Our downtown is about small business. And we want to see these businesses grow and have opportunities to thrive. And we would not be able to do this without the City hiring Liz Cook to manage the program. We needed that dedicated person to make it work.”
Encouraging a Community
In her role as Downtown Coordinator, Cook focuses on marketing the downtown to businesses that might consider locating in the area. “Downtown is office-heavy already, so for now we focus on attracting restaurants and retail businesses. We’re looking for business owners who want to join a community. A lot of my work involves researching potential businesses and writing proposals.” For CTN, a private sector non-profit organization, Cook focuses on helping the marketing and promotion efforts of CTN’s Promotions Committee. “During the pandemic that group was organized by Karen Scott,” said Cook. “They built a team of 7 or 8 people who were really supportive and engaged.”
Cook noted that CTN really relies on local business involvement. “The [CTN] mission is to support businesses and it needs business buy-in to work. We’re always asking, ‘what’s your opinion’ about our program. There are about ten owners who are super involved. There are many others who help out too, even in the past year when life has been crazy.” Daphne Wahl echoed that observation: “It’s about the volunteers. We can’t do it without the people.”
Wahl also noted that CTN has a long-term vision to expand the main street district. “Right now it’s mostly three blocks of West Washington Street, with a few places on Liberty and the cross streets between.” Cook works to help businesses grow and stay downtown — Fuzzy Dog Books & Music’s move to the Tate House at 201 East Washington Street is the most recent example of these relocations, which in the past year have included Sibling Coffee, Inkwells, Cape Cod Formals, Weant to Play, Studio M, and Effleurage Spa.
Cook described what she sees as important next steps: “People are looking for experiences, so we want to be more than just eating and shopping. We do need more dining. When you look at a place like Frederick in Maryland, there are a lot of different restaurant options downtown. The more restaurants, the more people will be here. We also want to attract more retail shops that offer experiences.” Summarizing her goal for downtown, Cook remarked, “I want this to be a place where we have businesses that offer the things that local residents need, to be a place where you can shop and eat without having to leave town.”Steve Pearson