Apr 26, 2009
Smithfield’s downtown is target of county studyBy Allison T. WilliamsDailyPress.com

Smithfield – The welcoming aroma of fresh-baked cookies no longer wafts across Main Street every day.

Miss Bessie’s Best Cookies & Candies made her sweet departure from downtown Smithfield’s historic district early this year. Several “For Rent” signs have popped up in vacant storefront windows along parts of Main Street, all evidence that tiny downtown Smithfield is not immune to the recession that is sweeping the country.

“We’re doing better than a lot of downtowns,” said Judy Winslow, tourism director for Isle of Wight County.

There are five vacant storefronts along Main Street, created by the closings of two antiques shops, the cookie shop and the merger of two gift shops into a smaller shared building.

Even with the economic downtown, there are bright spots among downtown retailers, she said. Longtime downtown restaurant Smithfield Gourmet Bakery is expanding into an adjacent vacant store, adding a coffee and wine shop in May.

In March, the tourism department and the Isle of Wight Arts League moved into new downtown digs, the Arts Center at 319, a newly renovated building that had been a hardware store for decades. The move into shared quarters boosts the visibility of both organizations, and is already resulting in increased tourism traffic and museum gift shop sales, said arts center director Sheila Gwaltney.

But in a downtown as small and dependent on tourism dollars as Smithfield, even one darkened storefront can make a difference, said county economic development director Lisa Perry.

“I see Smithfield as an economic engine for the county,” she said. “When tourists start to notice empty storefronts, they are going to stop coming.”

The economic ramifications will extend beyond the Main Street merchants, affecting other businesses, such as restaurants and gas stations that benefit from people visiting the county, she added.

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