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Votes

Buy Locally Great Falls?

Residents and local business owners discuss local economy and Village Center.

Dianne Van Volkenburg always tries to support the local businesses in her community, but when it comes to clothes, she usually has to resort to chain retail.

"I love the Village Center, but honestly, I have a hard time shopping for clothes for myself and my four kids," said Van Volkenburg, who is vice president of the Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA). "There is nothing trendy enough, and when I do find something, it's $250, which just chokes me with four kids."

Local resident Steve Gray also makes an effort to shop locally when he can. Before heading to Home Depot, he calls the Great Falls Hardware Store first, and asks if they carry the items he needs — or if they can order them. However, Gray said that while he and his wife think the employees at Safeway are very friendly, they go to Shoppers Food Warehouse to buy groceries, only because it is more economical.

"We can take $150 to $200 off of our bill by going there," said Gray.

At the December Great Falls Citizens Association general membership meeting, the co-chairs of the 2020 Vision Project led a discussion on the Great Falls Village Center and the local economy. A handful of local business owners attended the meeting and offered their input on both the good and bad aspects of the primary shopping area in Great Falls. Themis Kalaris, a 30-year resident of Great Falls, suggested that the 2020 Vision Project committee put out a community survey on the types of shops that residents would like to have in the Village Center.

"What do people really want to buy?" asked Kalaris. "Because we've had shoe stores and clothing stores in the past, but they all go out of business because nobody supports them."

Nancy Jacobs, owner of the Silk Purse in the Village Center, said that she has been successful because she focuses on customer service.

"I also have a little bit for everyone — not just expensive items," said Jacobs. "If you're going to have the $250 dress, you also have to have something for the person who cannot buy that."

LOCAL DENTIST and president of the Great Falls Business and Professional Association (BPA) Ralph Lazaro, DDS, has had his offices in the Great Falls Village Center for many years. Lazaro said that he agrees that customer service is important, and he feels that Great Falls has an excellent business community. Lazaro added that he is bothered when he hears that people are unhappy with the Village Center.

"We have a Village Center that no one else has," said Lazaro. "I think a lot of the business community has a good sense of giving back to the community."

He cited the Halloween Spooktacular, the Christmas Tree Lighting, the Easter Egg Hunt, the Taste of Great Falls and the Summer Concerts on the Green as examples of major events that are brought to the community annually by the tenants of the Village Center.

"I think it's [the Village Center] is strong, and I think it's good," said Lazaro. "Is it perfect? No."

Lazaro said he did not want to mention the "five-letter word" that he believes is necessary for the Village Center to thrive in the future, but noted that "if the facilities we're working in are not working … we cannot be successful." Sewer, the "five-letter word" that Lazaro avoided, is a controversial topic in Great Falls.

The Great Falls Village Center is currently operating on a failing septic system, and subsequently cannot lease space to high water users such as restaurants and hair salons. However, many residents fear that the installation of a sewer line will pave the way for unwanted high density commercial development. Although the sewer issue will impact the future of the Village Center, the 2020 Vision Project committee asked residents to refrain from discussing it at last week's meeting as it will be the primary topic of the Great Falls Citizens Association January general membership meeting.

Michael Kearney, owner of the Old Brogue Irish Pub, said that he would like to see the Village Center be more pedestrian friendly. He added that the addition of more restaurants would be beneficial to him because residents are more likely to eat in the Village Center if they have a lot of choices. However, more restaurants would require a solution to the septic issue. Rather than delve into the forbidden topic, Kearney simply pointed out that regardless of how people feel about sewer, something has to be done to engage a more significant portion of the Great Falls community in the Village Center dialogue.

"I look around and I know everybody in this room, and that's a bad thing," said Kearney. "It needs to be more than a few people carrying the bucket."

STEVE GRAY gave a brief talk on the advantages and disadvantages of creating a special tax district to fund community projects.

"At least 51 percent of property owners have to sign a petition, and what this really is, is a petition to tax yourselves," said Gray. "It's a long process."

The limit on special tax districts is 0.25 of the assessed value of a home — meaning that a home assessed at $1 million would have a maximum yearly tax of $2,500 in a special tax district. Gray noted that the advantages of creating such a district would be that the community could determine and execute local priorities, and there would be local control of local money. The disadvantages of a special district are the additional tax, and what Gray deemed "limited potential."

"It's not a substitute for government-sponsored activities," said Gray.

In addition, the county would appoint a special tax district Board of Directors, which Gray said could impact local control.

Keith Lasoya, executive director of the Chesapeake Sustainable Business Alliance, also spoke at the meeting. Lasoya discussed how the Chesapeake community was able to launch a "Buy Locally" campaign that revived its suffering local economy. Lasoya explained that a dollar that is spent locally will bring back a much greater percentage of return to the community.

"You can do this here in Great Falls," said Lasoya. "You have to do something that is very difficult to do, and that is to change people's buying habits."

Themis Kalaris said that while she certainly supports the idea of a "Buy Locally Great Falls" campaign, she is not optimistic about its success.

"I really wonder if this community can rally together and put support behind the local businesses from here all the way down to Colvin Run Road," said Kalaris.

Great Falls Citizens Association executive committee member Sue Bennett said that businesses with excellent customer service will always thrive, and also discussed her ambition to start a Farmer's Market in Great Falls.

"The key is personal touch," said Bennett.

Kalaris said that there was a Farmer's Market in Great Falls several years ago, but like so many other local shops, it did not last.

"Again we go back to the support of the community," said Kalaris. "They didn't turn out much for that either … hopefully it will come back again and be successful, but I just don't know."

The members of the 2020 Vision Project committee will continue to gather community input on the Village Center in the coming months.