Downtown looks to build on big small business Saturday with December events

Downtown businesses are getting into the holiday spirit. (File photo)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

Buoyed by crowds and strong sales on Small Business Saturday, the Harrisonburg business community is planning to harness the momentum with expanded holiday-inspired activities in December. 

Andrea Dono, executive director of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, told The Citizen that Saturday was a welcome economic surge after an unpredictable and challenging last 20 months.

“Everyone, so far, who I spoke to said that it was a really strong weekend,” Dono said. “They had a great Small Business Saturday, and they feel like it’s just going to continue throughout the holiday shopping season.” 

Many business owners in Downtown Harrisonburg said that this Saturday was one of the biggest they have experienced, with higher sales revenue and supportive crowds. 

“Small Business Saturday this year was the best in OASIS history,” said Barbara Camph, one of the artists at OASIS Fine Art and Craft. “The amount of love and support by our community is gratifying and so appreciated.”

Faith Sams, co-owner of TARE Refill Shop in the Agora Market, said sale revenue was up 25% over the typical Saturday income and had almost double the transactions.

“I was hoping that we’d see some love from the community, but I was blown away by the number of people that came out intentionally because it was a day set aside to patronize small businesses,” Sams said. “There was a vibe of generosity and a real desire to find gifts for people on their wish lists.”

For Mary McMahan, Marketing Director for withSimplicity, the gratitude for the amount of support they received over the weekend was what made her the happiest. 

“We saw an increase in foot traffic and a good amount of new customers,” McMahan said. “Multiple customers mentioned that they were purposely out and about in order to support their local small business community, which warms our hearts.”

Small Business Saturday is the unofficial kick-off to the holiday season downtown, and after 2020 was spent without community gatherings for the holidays, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance has multiple events planned that promise to be packed with fun, while still mindful of COVID. 

Winter Wonderfest

Winter Wonderfest — scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 11, downtown — promises to be the biggest event this year, Dono said.

“Because we had to cancel Skeletonfest, we decided we wanted to go bigger for Winter Wonderfest, by doing some more programming and fun stuff for the community,” Dono said. 

Starting at 11 a.m., the event will feature holiday shopping, a Sip and Stroll — a special license to allow people to carry alcoholic beverages around outside — as well as carolers, costumed characters, photos with Santa, a gingerbread house contest and a free movie at Court Square Theater.  

A stationary Holiday Parade will feature floats placed around Court Square. (There is no traditional parade this year.) There will be live music on the courthouse steps later in the evening, pop-up holiday markets, and a live nativity at Asbury Church. 

“You can’t come down and have a bad time in downtown on that day,” Dono said laughing. 

Camph said the Friendly City Merchants Association is also considering having a candlelight procession during the Winter Wonderfest, depending on whether enough people are interested in participating.

The Cookie Tour, which has been a popular event in past Decembers, is back after being cancelled last year. The self-guided tour allows participants to collect locally made cookies of all types and flavors by visiting area businesses that participate on the tour.

Dono said the event, which requires tickets, sells out every year. 

Handmade Holidays

Businesses downtown are also participating in Handmade Holidays, where shoppers can go into select stores throughout the holiday season and create handmade gifts. Ideas range from inexpensive ones for kids, such as make-your-own slime at OASIS, to more stately sterling silver money clips at Hugo Kohls.

“Some of the things are free or just a dollar,” Dono said.

Dono suggested that people should sign up for Handmade Holidays on the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance website to reserve times. 

Light Up the Town

The “Light up the Town” Downtown Light Tour is the brainchild of Mary McMahan at withSimplicity. She thought of the idea last Christmas when all events were cancelled because of Covid. 

“I wanted to find a way to bring joy back to our community that’s a) free, b) easily accessible, especially with social distancing, and c) a great way to attract new traffic to our small business community,” McMahan said in an email. 

Businesses downtown have decorated their windows with lighting and displays to bring people downtown. The window displays combine with the city’s lights and decorations to create a festive environment at night. 

Nearly 50 businesses are participating this year, including shops, restaurants, banks, realtors, and law offices, McMahan said.

“Downtown looks and feels very magical right now,” Dono said. 

The light show is currently running from now until New Years. 

Shopping Small

Dono said such events serve to bring the community together while keeping local stores thriving — and downtown alive. 

“Businesses throughout the nation took a big hit during the pandemic, and it’s not easy being a small business owner,” Dono said. “It’s usually just you, if you are owner-operated, or you are lucky to have staff, and so you feel pretty stretched thin all the time. An entrepreneur is someone who is tenacious and who doesn’t call it quits when it gets hard.”

Sams, who started as co-owner with TARE Refill Shop in September, says she’s excited for the events that will bring the community into the downtown.  

“We are very hopeful that we will continue to see the same level of support this season and credit that to the support of Organizations like Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance and Friendly City Merchants,” Sams said. “Every time there is a concerted effort by the city or an organization to draw people downtown for a joyful time, we see an increase in patronage and awareness of the small businesses downtown.”

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