In October 2011, six entrepreneurs from Franklin attended a conference in Asheville. The conference was an AdvantageWest initiative highlighting “ways for entrepreneurs and community leaders to focus efforts on strategic goals which ultimately keep the ‘wealth at home.’ Industry representatives and successful business owners explained their experiences with the common pursuit of growing a ‘local economy.’”
The conference and the objective were legitimate, and the attendees came away inspired to implement what they had learned. And thus, Venture Local Franklin was born.
Billed as a “local citizens movement for economic prosperity,” merchant members got together and batted around ideas to get consumers downtown and increase awareness. A website was built along with a Facebook page for local input. “Hangouts” were held at local restaurants with the objective to add to the local economy and to help out local merchants.
One of the more creative ideas was to hold a “Street- Fest” downtown after regular business hours, with vendors, music, a movie on a big screen, a street dance and most importantly, businesses could stay open and allow more people to see what the merchants had to offer.
The Macon County News got onboard by highlighting local businesses in various categories to great reviews. The businesses were grateful and our readers consistently commented on how much they enjoyed the series. And, yes, MCN benefitted from an increase in advertising, but it was not a requirement to be included in the series.
“Cash mobs” were also suggested in which a business was chosen by a random drawing and consumers would appear at a designated time and agree to spend $20 at the business. Businesses were required to “pay it forward” in some way.
Increase traffic downtown, spend money in a local business, help out nonprofits ... all great ideas, right?
Since its inception, Venture Local Franklin and its community members have been completely above board in its mission and purpose: To promote local business. They had open meetings in which town officials were invited via email. In the beginning, town officials were also consulted as to proper procedures to put on the StreetFest event and VL followed each one. They had an idea and executed it with their own money and resources. Some members work for the initiative even though their own businesses do not benefit directly.
Out of Venture Local, a previously established organization, Streets of Franklin, was revamped. According to its bylaws, by holding a meeting of Streets and electing a new board, the non-profit was reinstated.
In Aug. 2012, Streets went before the Tourism Development Authority (TDA) to request funding for its next StreetFest event, that had previously been totally funded by the Main Street businesses. They were told they needed an “official state standing” and that proof of insurance was required to hold the event. The request for funds was tabled until the supposed requirements were met. In the meantime, the August StreetFest went on as planned.
In September, StreetFest was a tailgate party in advance of the Franklin High School Panthers football game against Smoky Mountain. The newly-formed FHS dance team was to perform and the public was invited downtown to “paint the town red” to support the local football team. Merchants decorated downtown with pumpkins, scarecrows and corn shucks for the upcoming fall season, again, at their own expense.
Streets returned to the TDA in September with their non-profit status and their proof of insurance in hand, and were turned down flat, due to the ambiguous reason of “legality.”
Streets was further notified that no longer would they be able to hold the “flash mobs” in the street, erect tents or post a banner across Main Street as they had done for the last three festivals. No laws were being broken, no reasons were given.
Last month, merchants attended a town board meeting in an attempt to shed light on the lack of communication between Main Street businesses and the town. An open forum was slated for this past week. The conclusion: All Main Street activities should come under the umbrella of the town-sanctioned Main Street Program, the director of whom objected to the MCN’s Venture Local series as stated in a heated conversation with our publisher.
Instead of everyone getting under a small and restrictive “umbrella,” can the scope not be expanded to include more than just a couple of players for the benefit of Main Street businesses and the Town of Franklin? What are the goals here? What is the purpose of the Main Street Program? The StreetFests brought people downtown, not just locals, but others passing through town, accomplishing what it set out to do. Why can’t the town and its tourism boards support a successful venture? Communication is all well and good, but if the end result is “because I said so,” that’s when the conversation ends.
Venture Local Franklin is not just a fly-by-night social club. It has been recognized on the state level. A VL member was invited to speak at the AdvantageWest sponsored N.C. Entrepreneurial Summit in Asheville regarding his work with Venture Local. He was the only representative west of Asheville to be invited to speak. He will also speak at Venture Local Conference AdvantageWest with representatives from the 23 WNC counties in attendance on Dec. 7. VL members have also been asked to help implement a similar program in Sylva. Recognized on the state level, yet fighting just to be heard in their own hometown.
Harry Truman once said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” It was never the intention of Streets to undermine anyone’s authority. It was simply to promote downtown. What is the harm in that?