By Elly Cosgrove
Lexington resident Cindy Hughes has long dreamed of opening a gift shop in downtown Lexington, and now she’s a finalist for funding.
“I just want to add to that energy that’s down there and just, you know, contribute to that and make it a special place,” she said.
Hughes is one of eight finalists in a competition known as Launch Lex. A panel of judges were supposed to choose the best ideas Tuesday, but bad weather forced a postponement until April 11.
The finalists include new and expanding businesses that will pitch against one another to win a share of a $60,000 grant and the opportunity to open a store in downtown Lexington. Main Street Lexington Executive Director Stephanie Wilkinson said judges will decide how many winners there are based on the number of compelling pitches.
“I want to be a part of that downtown core,” said Hughes, who will be pitching an idea to create the Sugar Maple Trading Co.
Many of the finalists said the Launch Lex program has given them a support network of local entrepreneurs.
“They’re all super supportive of each other in a way that I think is rare for people that start businesses in a small community,” said Stephanie Wilkinson, Main Street Lexington executive director. “I’m hoping that will also have a spill-over effect for the Main Street organization.”
Jess Reid, a Launch Lex participant who would like to open the Lex Running Shop, said taking the risk of opening a small business is already hard enough. She said she is comforted by the fact that local business owners and her fellow entrepreneurs are invested in one another.
“There’s this pervasive sense that, you know we’re in this together,” she said. “If my shop does well, if you’re shop does well, then this is good for everyone.”
Main Street Lexington started Launch Lex, an eight-week business training program, after receiving a Community Business Launch grant from the state of Virginia. Twenty business entrepreneurs finished the program and the eight finalists were chosen based on their final business plans.
The new business ideas that will be pitching it out on April 11 are Heliotrope, a craft brewery; Just Games, a game shop; Lex Running Shop, a running shop; Flex Fitness, a new fitness center; Sugar Maple Trading Co., a gift shop; and Lex General Store, a store that will have a deli bar, Lexington souvenirs and local products. Expanding businesses that will be pitching are Cocoa Mill Chocolatier and Make it Sew.
Filling empty storefronts and creating jobs is the goal of the $60,000 grant, Wilkinson said. That’s why multiple, but not all, of the eight businesses will receive part of the grant money.
“That’s what the state wants to see, I think they’d be disappointed if we gave all of [the grant money] to fill one empty storefront,” Wilkinson said.
Make it Sew Owner Accacia Mullen said she needs to hire a new employee to help with the large amount of alteration customers she’s had since opening her store in November.
“It’s the right amount of space, kind of, but if I have an employee come in it pushes it,” she said.
Her current space on South Main Street also limits the number of students who can attend her sewing classes and the variety of fabrics she can sell.
“I am critically thinking about what I do here now and what I want to do and how much space is really necessary to do that well,” she said.
The Lex General Store is an idea that Jonathan Tarris said downtown Lexington has needed for quite some time. As someone who grew up in the area, he said he is always looking for different opportunities that will improve the community.
“I’ve thought for some time that Lexington needs all sorts of businesses, but I thought this was one of the more major needs downtown,” he said.
The finalists learned how to put together business plans during the Launch Lex program’s eight weeks of classes. They also met with city officials and business owners.
“We talked about how to price a service or a product,” Mullen said. “After that I increased my hourly rate a bit because it made me look at things I hadn’t considered prior.”
Tarris owns a law practice and short-term rentals but has never managed a retail store.
“I think I had met a couple people through the class that had given me some excellent information on inventory management, which I haven’t had to deal with in my previous businesses,” he said.
Wilkinson, a local business owner herself, said that getting the “360-degree view” of what it takes to start a business is helpful for any aspiring or expanding business owner.
“I think the number one thing they learned will be about how do you turn a dream into an actual viable business,” she said.
Winners of the pitch competition will also receive a package of services including a discounted Lexington-Rockbridge Chamber of Commerce membership for the first year, legal assistance, graphic design help and a marketing package from the local newspaper.
Businesses that receive grant money must open downtown before Sept. 30.