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City Funds Redirected for Shopping Promotion

Here Come The Holidays — Ready Or Not

A citywide effort will be unleashed Friday, Oct. 29, to convince area shoppers that Alexandria is the place to find the best gifts this holiday season. It will encompass everything from increased retail decorations, to newspaper inserts, to radio spots, to email blasts — all in the name of holiday marketing.

"This is going to be a major effort and will benefit all areas of the city," said Jo Anne Mitchell, president and CEO, Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association. The kick off will occur at the next Fun Side Forum to be held at the Holiday Inn Select, 480 King St.

A PRIMARY FUNDING source for the program is the redirection of city funds from the free parking program that has been in effect during the holiday season since 2001. The city manager's office estimated the program's cost at approximately $125,000 annually.

"We gave them [ACVA and merchants' organizations] the choice of continuing the free parking program or using the money in another fashion. They chose to put it toward a promotion program that will benefit the entire city," said Mark Jinks, assistant city manager for fiscal and financial affairs.

"There was just so much money. We couldn't do both. We also offered them the option of splitting it — so much for promotion and so much for a shortened version of free parking at meters and in the city garages," he said.

Beginning with the holiday season of 2001, following the terrorist attacks and the steep decline in tourism, it was decided that free parking would be offered at all meters and city garages from Thanksgiving through New Year's. It was in effect commencing at 5 p.m. on weekdays and all day Saturdays and Sundays.

However, the income also included money collected by the city as a result of fines from expired parking meters, according to Jinks. "This accounted for about half the income," he said.

One adverse fallout to the free parking program was that it

penalized the owners/operators of private garages in the city. One of the largest of those is Colonial Parking which operates 170 garages throughout the region of which approximately 12 are in Alexandria.

"We were suffering tremendous losses in our garages because we just couldn't compete with the free parking. The Park Alexandria program is a much more beneficial program for the merchants and is not subject to the same manipulation as free parking," said Andrew Blair, president and CEO, Colonial Parking.

Park Alexandria, a year-round program, operates under the aegis of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. It applies to all garages in the city, according to Blair.

As one of the original architects of Park Alexandria, Blair said, "A merchant goes to the bank, buys stamps good for $1 each to be attached to the shopper's parking garage ticket. Each shopper can place two on the ticket per garage visit," he said.

Garage operators take the stamped receipts back to the bank and receive 75 cents for each stamp. The remaining 25 cents goes toward promoting the program. "The validation system concentrates on the customer. It is truly a unique system in the region and benefits everyone," Blair said.

Overall, the 2004 holiday promotion program is budgeted at $186,000, according to Mitchell. It is comprised of $50,000 from ACVA, $12,000 from the marketing fund, and $125,000 from the city in lieu of free parking.

Planned expenditures are allotted accordingly: Media - $99,000; Design and production for three ads and bus ads - $7,000; Map, brochure, interactive web design, and printing - $15,000; Newspaper inserts, email blasts, and postage - $15,000; and Programmatic events - $50,000.

The entire effort is based on a strategy of pulling the entire city together to benefit each area's merchants. It is a joint endeavor by Old Town Business Association, King Street Metro Enterprise Team, Potomac West Business Association, Eisenhower Partnership, West End Business Association, Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, and the city, according to ACVA.

OPERATING UNDER the slogan "It's All About Alex," the centerpiece will be a Scottish terrier named Alex who will appear in a variety of venues from the Scottish Walk Parade to a "Find Alex" shopping promotion. Sporting a tartan tam, he will honor the city Scottish heritage in a myriad events.

"We want to covey to the public that Alexandria is not only historic but also a very good place to shop. We are encouraging shops to stay open later and we hope to have street entertainers performing throughout the holiday shopping season," said Carol Supplee, owner, Imagine Artwear, 1124 King St.

"This program really makes sense because Alexandria is competing with the malls and other areas such as Occoquan and Reston Town Center," she said.

"It's pulling together all the business neighborhoods. It's truly a collaborative effort," said Charlotte Hall, president, Potomac Riverboat Company, and ACVA Board member.

"We have been having quarterly meetings of all the various business elements to explore ways we could better promote ourselves. It was Phil Sunderland, at one of those meetings, that suggested "Why not bring back that feeling of being home for the holidays." That was the spark for the program," Hall said.

A highlight of the program will be the "Find Alex Shopping Contest." A stuffed reproduction of the real "Alex" will be making appearances in participating shops windows along Old Town's King Street and Del Ray's Mount Vernon Avenue throughout the holiday season.

"When a shopper spots Alex in a window, they can go inside to register to win an Alexandria shopping spree good for a $50 gift certificate to be used in January and February next year," said Laura Overstreet, vice president, ACVA Communications. "Alex can be recognized by his tartan tam and gold medallion around his neck."

TO ENCOURAGE a festive holiday ambiance throughout the city and promote Alexandria's traditional theme of a Scottish Holiday, businesses and residents are being encouraged to use candles in windows and tartan ribbon as primary decorating themes. Local business organizations and civic associations will be asked to submit their top three candidates to ACVA@FunSide.com no later than Dec. 22.

Based on judging criteria, gift certificates will be presented to two winners from three different categories for a total of six prizes. The gift certificates will be from local florists to be used for the 2005 holiday season. In each category, business and resident, a certificate will be awarded in the amount of: First - $100; Second - $75; and Third - $50.

Other program elements include:

* Electric candles in the business windows to be lighted throughout the holidays.

* Hotel packages for overnight stays.

* Paid performances at specific locations throughout the city by performing artists.

* Large, decorated trees incorporating the Scottish theme in Del Ray and other sections of the city.

Two items being sold to help defray costs of the promotion campaign are the stuffed replica of "Alex," in two sizes, and a snow globe depicting an Old Town scene. They will be in addition to ACVA's traditional ornament.

Joining "Alex" as a new addition to ACVA's holiday keepsakes is the snow globe. Selling for $29.95 each the globes contain a back-to-back scene of Old Town.

The 2004 ornament will be sold for $12 each, or $6 with a purchase of 10 or more. As for "Alex," the 15 inch size will go for $25 each with a $5 discount for a purchase of 10 or more. The smaller nine inch version will retail for $14 or $10 with an order of 10 or more.

ACVA's total plan will be formally unveiled Oct. 29.