While some downtown merchants are struggling, others say a little elbow grease and perseverance are all it takes to build a thriving business downtown.
One of those is Lamar Roberts. His Grey & Blue Naval Museum made 20 percent more money in 2000 than in 1999, he said. So far, despite the rain, this month is up 58 percent from last January.
His retail sales, which include such items as Confederate flags, bumper stickers and T-shirts along with model boats and souvenirs, have gotten a boost from recent controversy over the symbols of the Confederacy, he admits. But there’s another component, too.
“The key is hard work,” Roberts said. “The visitor’s bureau is here to help give us leads, but they can’t do the work for us. We’ve got to do it ourselves.”
Roberts writes personal invitations to each person attending veterans’ reunions at the Vicksburg Convention Center. He has made his own satisfaction surveys, which he hands out as patrons leave his shop. And he is continually upgrading his models and displays.
“We’re beginning to get a lot of repeats, plus word’s getting out about what we have here,” he said.
Norma Massey of Fredericks, a children’s shoe store in business for generations, agreed that repeat business and a personal connection with customers is what makes a downtown business successful.
“We feel like a lot of our customers go out of their way to come here because this is our 50th year,” Massey said.
A few customers who have moved away resorted to faxing outlines of their children’s feet to her store so she could fit shoes for them, she said.
“A lot of newer, younger people are more geared toward going to the mall or somewhere else,” Massey said. “You’ve got to do something special for them. Let them know you care.”
Theobald said she had also noticed that the businesses having the most success were those that made the extra effort to get out and drum up business, and provide extra services not found elsewhere.
“Nobody wants to blame themselves, but maybe they should look in the mirror if they want to know where the problem is,” she said.
The past year has honestly been tough, she said. The riverboat cruise ships have not been docking in Vicksburg as often due to low water, and the Christmas season was busy but purchases were generally smaller.
To Theobald, the answer is more tourism. While many of the downtown businesses, such as a store selling maternity and infant clothing, are geared mainly toward local shoppers, other businesses, including gift shops like Sassafras and Cinnamon Tree, see a big boost when tourists are in town, she said.
All of the city’s and Main Street’s plans for bolstering the downtown economy center around drawing in out-of-towners, including plans for a new river museum and other attractions.
B’nai B’rith Club owner Laurence Leyens, a former marketing consultant, was paid $40,000 by Main Street last year for a marketing study of downtown Vicksburg, in which he included that downtown survival depended on becoming a major tourist attraction.
Leyens recommended major changes in everything from zoning laws to advertising strategies. Some of his recommendations, like the Corps of Engineers river museum, are moving forward slowly, while others, like a riverfront golf course, have made no visible progress.
But Chamber President Margaret Gilmer, in promoting the concept of an Alliance of pro-Vicksburg organizations, told Main Street members Wednesday that what downtown and the city need to be successful is already in front of them, if everyone will come together and make the most of it.
“Sometimes we get hung up on the things we need and don’t have,” Gilmer said. “We don’t work hard enough to tell people about the things that are here.”