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Community Partnerships Lead to a Successful Holiday Season

A Conversation with City of Olympia Economic Development Director Mike Reid and Local Business Owners

"Our downtown is made exclusively of small, locally-owned businesses and is the heartbeat of the entire region, says Mike Reid, Economic Development Director of the City of Olympia. "Because of this, when COVID-19 hit last year, we needed to think strategically about ways the city could collaborate with other organizations to support downtown businesses."

So Reid and community organizations began convening in August to plan and invest in essential partnerships with a common goal: to help downtown businesses. "It's our residents who work and shop at these places, and it seemed important to not only help businesses through the holiday season but to simultaneously bring some joy to the people who live here amid a very trying year," says Reid.   

With the involvement of the Olympia Downtown Alliance, The Washington Center for Performing Arts and the Parking & Business Improvement Area (PBIA), a 2020 holiday plan began to take shape under a month-long campaign named ‘Downtown for the Holidays,’ a campaign that in years past kicked off with the Downtown for the Holidays Parade, tree lighting and visit with Santa.

"We were able to partner with the Olympia Downtown Alliance to expand holiday lighting as well as add tree lighting in the downtown core, thanks to funding from the PBIA. The City entered into a contract with the Washington Center to promote holiday arts and culture, even though it needed to be executed differently," says Reid. And during the holiday season, businesses reaped the benefits.

Downtown for the Holidays included the Olympia Downtown Alliance "LoveOly" passport promotion. Customers received a sticker for each purchase of $10 or more and could redeem the passport once completed (five stickers) for a choice of LoveOly branded merchandise. Todd Cutts, Executive Director of the Olympia Downtown Alliance, reported a total of 710 redeemed passports, with an estimated $90K-$125K ($25-$35 average purchase) in direct spending from just the redeemed passports alone.  

"I had a woman come in with five completed passports," says Dean Jones, owner of Encore Tea & Chocolates. "She said she came downtown to support the event and discovered stores she hadn't even realized existed."

Encore was also a designated pick-up location for LoveOly merchandise, and Jones saw several customers come in with more than one completed passport to redeem. "I can't tell you the number of times I heard customers come in and say: "I'm here to support you because you're a local business," says Jones.

"The additional lighting was huge; it made downtown feel warm and welcoming," says Ruthann Goularte, owner at Drees of Olympia. "I think the Downtown for the Holidays promotion was a wonderful way to knit the community together and bring cheer to people. We beat our 2019 holiday numbers at Drees, and the promotion helped pulled us out of a mid-year slump."

It also encouraged people to come downtown and explore.

"I had one customer who hadn't been downtown in years, who was motivated to visit by the Downtown for the Holidays promotion. She said after coming once, she'd been back five times since," says Ruthann. "Christmas was humbling for us; the appreciation of our customers was overwhelming, and many of them talked about the importance of shopping locally. Holidays are always fun at Drees, but this year had a different glow for us."

"I hit a bit of a dry spell earlier in the year but managed to have a very successful holiday season," says Janis Dean, owner of The Popinjay. "It was a relief, and I believe the Downtown for the Holidays promotion helped. Customers were very excited about it."

"There's such a strong arts and culture environment here, and particularly during the holidays, a lot of that is performance-based," says Reid. "These events have a 'multiplier effect,' you bring your family downtown for a performance of The Nutcracker, have dinner at a restaurant and stop for some holiday shopping. Without these events happening, we knew that businesses would suffer and recognized how crucial the months of November and December are for small businesses' success."

In addition to the holiday efforts, last summer, initiatives included a partnership with the Olympia Downtown Alliance to assist with funding for both the Promising Notes Concert Series and the Artists on Board project. Promising Notes was a collaboration between the City of Olympia, Octapas Cafe and the Olympia Downtown Alliance. Local musicians created short music videos of their work to share on social media channels and WhyIGoDowntown.com. Olympia Artspace Alliance and the Olympia Downtown Alliance collaborated with the City and rolled out a project called "Artists on Board." This project provided artists a platform to beautify the boarded up exteriors of some downtown businesses. Additionally, a grant the Downtown Alliance administered assisted with improving some downtown aesthetics.  

By population, Olympia is Washington's 25th largest city, but it had the 10th most approved Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans in the state. Reid attributes this to the impressive network of local financial institutions, credit unions, Thurston Strong (the Thurston Regional Economic Recovery Task Force) and a healthy Visitor & Convention Bureau.

"We are continually investing in ways to expand these networks and build additional resources," says Reid. "By continuing to support and invest in partnerships with organizations like the ODA, PBIA and other partners, we are now able to leverage these connections to educate businesses about ways to access available state and federal resources as well as do the hard work necessary to begin to reopen essential segments of our economy safely.”

*Photos Courtesy City of Olympia

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