Maggie Longest

ASHLAND -- With a new name and improved website, Downtown Ashland Association is continuing its efforts to attract and maintain customers in Ashland’s downtown district through special events and marketing projects.

Maggie Longest, Downtown Ashland Association executive director, presented town council with an update last week on the organization’s recent activities.

“We are very proud of the work we’ve been able to do in 2019, and this year really tells a lot about the trajectory of our organization going forward,” Longest said as she presented fourth quarter updates for 2019.

Last year, the organization conducted surveys with all downtown businesses and customers in Ashland.

“We were trying to get that base market data and see the role we play as economic developers,” Longest said.

“We had over 90 responses to a survey that we sent to about 140 businesses,” she said. More than 300 responses were received from downtown customers.

“Those surveys were very telling,” Longest said. “The customer surveys show that there is a lot of demand and support for our downtown businesses, which is not the case across the country especially for historic small towns.”

“We saw that people like our downtown and all of the other indicators show that there is demand for business growth here,” Longest said.

A common response in those surveys was the need for store variety in the downtown area.

The business responses to the survey also indicated that the customer base for downtown Ashland is comprised of both local and regional shoppers, and the historic town is a destination for regional residents.

Longest said that customer base is located within one-half hour driving distance from the town.

“That’s our potential customer base for Ashland,” Longest said. “Those are the customers downtown businesses said they needed and those are the customers they are making the most revenue from.”

Many of those customers are of the repeat variety and are aged 35 to 55 years.

“Our customers are looking for value and an experience,” she said. “The average family income of that prospective customer is around $75,000 annually. They also are tech savvy and use the internet to search for options.”

“That data is encouraging. It gives us a clear target market for our economic development work,” Longest said.

She said her organization plans local events that complement that customer base and provide positive branding for the downtown area.

She cited last year’s Train Day as an example. The event drew about 10,000 people from across the region to the area.

“Not only was that a great day but a great branding opportunity for us as a downtown,” Longest said.

“We did the same thing with Light Up the Tracks this year and really leveraged that this year in a way that hadn’t been,” she said.

The holiday effort included a new website that allowed businesses the opportunity to promote their events and link with other community events during the holidays.

“We’re using the lights and track and this beautiful historic setting as a reason for people to come downtown. We tried to focus that as a branding opportunity,” Longest said.

Also in 2019, the organization extended that broadening effort with a name change for the group. Formerly known as Ashland Main Street Association, the organization is now the Downtown Ashland Association.

“When you see anything from us, we want the headline to be ‘Come to Downtown Ashland’ so Downtown Ashland is now our name and our brand,” Longest told council members.

“The group also has a new website tagged downtownashland.com. It’s a great showcase for our town,” Longest said.

The organization has partnered with the town in a communication campaign in an attempt to attract potential customers and promote the town’s downtown and other attractions like the recently renovated Ashland Theatre.

Longest said the past year’s efforts are focused and specifically targeted to increase downtown customers and promote Ashland’s business district, “driving sustained growth for Ashland.”

“That’s what you have seen from us over the year,” Longest said. “I think it shows that we’re not only doing what we said but more and we are proud of the work we’ve done.”

Longest said the organization is seeking donations to fund a project that would enhance pedestrian traffic along England Street.

Planters with lighted evergreens are planned for both sides of the street. James River Nurseries has agreed to donate the plants and provide initial care.

Longest said the group is seeking $30,000 to fund the project, and donors can reserve planters in a loved one’s name or any person worthy of recognition for $1,500, but all donations will be accepted.

Longest said the project will encourage pedestrian traffic and make the area more aesthetically pleasing in advance of the town’s currently under development England Street Master Plan.

“We wanted to do something immediately with the opening of the Ashland Theatre and seeing a desire to make our town as pedestrian-friendly and inviting and aesthetically pleasing as possible to support our local businesses,” Longest said.

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