In the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the banks of the Shenandoah River in Virginia is Front Royal, a town of about 15,000 people surrounded by picturesque farms, orchards and wineries. Front Royal has a rich history as a Civil War battle site and outpost, and is the northern entry point to Shenandoah National Park.
These factors make Front Royal an attractive stop for tourists and, despite the community’s size, attractive to chain stores and restaurants. And since Washington, DC is in commuting range, Front Royal’s local retailers face the added challenge of residents stopping to shop on their commutes.
While business owners had tried various efforts to spur a “buy local” / support your community initiative in Warren County and the Town of Front Royal through their own initiatives, none sustained an impact.
Then, in 2011, Weatherly Morgan of Weathervane Graphics attended a presentation by Stacy Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Stacy captured her interest with stories of communities that had launched local coalitions explicitly to support local independent business.
Weatherly shared her excitement with Craig Laird, owner of Royal Oak Computers and began researching. They soon joined AMIBA to help them form and build a local organization.
Laird recalled, “Someone brought a bottle of wine to the first steering meeting, and at every meeting thereafter the steering group would sample another vintage.” This kind of camaraderie is an important foundation for local alliances — good organizing should involve a healthy amount of fun! Plans were made, logos were approved, a brochure was created, and on March 1st, 2012 the Front Royal Independent Business Alliance (FRIBA) was launched. Apparently others thought organizing was a good idea, because FRIBA ended their first year of operation with about 70 business members.
FRIBA has excelled at engaging the community and drawing them into the town’s heart through community events. One, Taste of the Town, began in 2014, inspired by the restaurant week concept and a desire to showcase the county’s numerous local eateries. FRIBA’s goal was a family-friendly event that would bring the community into the center of town where they could socialize with other residents.
More than a dozen local eateries participated, along with member businesses, a live band, non-profit agencies and other community supporters. More than 1,000 people attended this 3-hour evening event, and the results exceeded all expectations. FRIBA returned a large portion of the ticket price to the vendors to help defray food costs, and gave a substantial donation to the local food bank. The following year, a car show was added to the event, hosting over 50 antique cars.
FRIBA also created a Facebook page called Lunching Local, where they encourage local restaurants to post their daily specials and entice local residents to dine at local establishments.
Front Royal is an Appalachian Trail Community, which attracts AT hikers seeking some civilization, resupply, and a break from the trail. To help with local marketing and building on that attraction, FRIBA partnered with the local Appalachian Trail Conservancy maintenance club to launch the Walk a Mile, Share a Smile initiative which encourages residents to post a “selfie” while exploring the 30 miles of AT in the region.
Other events and initiatives include participation in the national Independents Week celebration, Farm-to-Table programming, and partnering with some other area business groups on presentations and workshops to help local businesses. Laird says Independents Week is just one of many ideas from AMIBA’s toolbox they’ve employed. He adds, “our copy of AMIBA’s operating handbook is literally falling to pieces from use.”
FRIBA representatives are common fixtures at Town Council meetings. “One of our advocacy roles is to support our membership by raising issues before the town council and board of supervisors. To find common ground where we can identify strengths and weaknesses within the community from the independent business owner’s perspective.”
FRIBA has leveraged their growing influence to spur the formation of a Community Development Director position within the Town of Front Royal, and the new Director started the job on April 1, 2016. FRIBA also are stakeholders in a Community Development Grant application for the Town, which could bring a large amount for improvements, branding, and wayfinding signage.
Craig Laird sees FRIBA as an important thread in the the fabric of Front Royal. “I believe it is safe to say that FRIBA will be a continuing fixture of downtown Front Royal and, yes, even in a small way, local small town politics as well.”Print This Post