Brett and Jill Wolfe brought their barbecue restaurant home to downtown Marion, Virginia, from Blacksburg, and soon had to switch the “Open” sign off.
It wasn’t for lack of business. So many customers stopped by Wolfe’s Barbecue on opening day, July 3, 2013, that they sold out of barbecue. So they restocked and hired more help over the weekend.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” says Jill of their business on Main Street. “To see a community come out and support you like that is amazing. Brett and I could look at each other that day and say, ‘We did it’ because of the support we’ve received, and we’re not alone. All the businesses that have opened here are small businesses, and everybody helps each other out.”
That’s what it’s like these days downtown on Main Street of the 6,000-person community the Wolfes grew up in, recently named “America’s Coolest Hometown” by Arnett Muldrow & Associates, a national firm specializing in economic development and historic preservation.
New businesses are popping up all over the town where Bill Jones created the taste of Mountain Dew, and where PBS broadcasts its “Song of The Mountains®” bluegrass program live from the Lincoln Theatre.
Ken Heath, Marion’s community and economic development director, says the Wells Fargo-funded “Pop Up Marion” small business boot camp is a big reason for the downtown rebound, and towns like Altavista, Pulaski, and other communities in Virginia are following suit.
A bevy of awards have followed, too, including 2013 “Small Business Community of the Year” from the U.S. Small Business Administration and the 2014 Community Economic Development Award from the Southeastern Economic Development Council.
Reviving Marion’s downtown
Pop Up Marion launched in 2012 to reverse decades of shuttered storefronts and generational migrations that had turned downtown into a ghost town. The five-week small business boot camp is designed to help new businesses like Wolfe’s Barbecue get started and existing businesses expand.
Ken says he got the idea from the temporary stores retailers sometimes create to meet seasonal demand or to launch a new product line, but he made one key change. “For lasting impact,” he says, “the businesses needed to pop up and stay up, so that’s the direction we took.”
Pop Up Marion students learn everything from how to find a location, create a business plan, use social media in marketing, incorporate, and work with banks. The program ends with presentations where the businesses compete for $5,000 grants. New businesses that win a grant get reimbursed by Marion Downtown for rent or utilities in the first six months, and existing businesses can use the funds for façade upgrades and other improvements. All agree to regular mentoring and monitoring during the six-month period.
Olivia McDonald, who followed Ken as executive director of the Marion Downtown Revitalization Association, Inc. in 2013, says Pop Up Marion has slashed downtown vacancy rates from 17 percent to less than 6 percent since 2012. It’s also helped:
- Launch 19 new businesses that employ 87 people.
- Fill 10 vacant storefronts.
- Lead to nine building sales.
And, Olivia adds, in the past 18 months, some of Pop Up Marion’s 59 graduates (166 have attended courses) have invested $1.5 million in their downtown businesses.
“When I graduated from Marion High School, the big thing was to get the heck out of here,” she says. “I wanted to stay and change that, and we have. Now when you come downtown, it’s hard to get a parking spot. Downtown Marion again is the place to be, which is the result of a lot of hard work by people who believed in what could be.”
Olivia and Ken count Tommye Arnold, a Western Virginia Community Relations officer, and Wells Fargo among those believers. To date, the company has awarded a total of $40,000 to Pop Up Marion and personal bankers from Wells Fargo’s Main Street banking store regularly teach small business banking basics to Pop Up students.
“I learned about Pop Up Marion through the very first $5,000 grant request, which we supported because what Ken and Olivia are doing in Marion aligns perfectly with Wells Fargo’s commitment to small business, Tommye says. “We believe in the power of the people who create those businesses, whether they bank with us like Wolfe’s Barbecue, or not.
“Ken says that Marion’s people are its greatest advantage, and the source of the program’s success, and we feel the same way. When downtown’s and businesses succeed, we all do.”