Thomasville director offers tips on how to grow downtown Bainbridge

Karen Smith, the executive director of Downtown Thomasville Main Street and Tourism, was the special guest speaker at the “Downtown Coffee Break,” held Friday morning at the Callahan Room of the Firehouse Gallery.

Smith told the Bainbridge merchants and city representatives about the unique ways that downtown Thomasville has been able to revitalize itself. She suggested that local merchants and Main Street Bainbridge could use some of the same ideas.

“We’ve been able to grow our downtown because our merchants didn’t give up,” she said. “Not everything that we do is a home run, but it’s about coming up with fun ways to get people downtown again.”

Smith said one of the most successful events is the monthly “First Friday,” when downtown Thomasville merchants are open from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. She said that there are some challenges to holding an event on Fridays — football games in the fall, cold weather in the winter and hot weather in the summer, for example — but the downtown merchants felt it was necessary to provide some nightlife every month.

Smith said local merchants have been creative in finding ways to bring people into their stores, such as providing live music or art exhibits. Another crowd-pleaser has been antique car collectors, who set up their classic vehicles throughout downtown during many First Fridays.

“We just gave the car owners some goodie bags and that was enough to get them to come out the first time,” she said. “They enjoy it so much that now they almost get offended if we don’t invite them each Friday. Sometimes they’ll spread out the cars, so it forces visitors to have to walk through the whole downtown area to see them.”

Other activities at the First Fridays include face painting, balloons and local bands that provide entertainment.

“We try to think about the families in everything we do,” she said. “If you can come up with things that appeal to kids, then you’ll bring the parents downtown and they’re the ones that might shop while they’re there.”

Smith also said the downtown area has embraced local festivals that bring in outside visitors, whether those festivals are held downtown or not. For example, downtown Thomasville held an open house on the Sunday of the most recent Plantation Wildlife Arts Festival, even though the festival was hosted about five blocks from the downtown area.

“Previously, many of our merchants would look at those festivals and just say, ‘Well, downtown is going to be dead,’” she said. “But now we’ve come to embrace these events and we’ve used them as ways to entice those visitors downtown by holding open houses and having specials.”

Smith recommended that Bainbridge’s downtown merchants set up a similar program to Thomasville’s “Downtown Dollars” gift certificate program. She said 50 downtown Thomasville merchants accept the “Downtown Dollars,” and they make popular Christmas gifts.

The Bainbridge-Decatur County Chamber of Commerce already has a “Chamber Bucks” program, but Smith also suggested that Main Street Bainbridge should do a similar program just for the downtown merchants.

“This is something that you really want to do,” she said. “It doesn’t take a lot of time and it’s been very popular for us.”

Finally, Smith noted that one of the quickest ways to grow a downtown area is to bring in additional restaurants. She said downtown Thomasville had just five restaurants when she started working for the city, and now it has about 16.

“There’s nothing that will help build traffic quicker than having a variety of good restaurants,” she said.

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