AVON PARK - It was meant to be a way to help revitalize downtown Avon Park, bring in new businesses, new customers and stimulate the local economy.
But just over two years later, its success so far just hasn't been in the cards.
Since it was officially launched Jan. 1, 2012, the Buy Main Street Avon Park program has become more of an economic boondoggle than bonanza. Created by The Avon Park Main Street District Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) and modeled after Sebring's successful Buy Downtown Sebring Program, it was designed to spur economic activity in areas in and near downtown while helping consumers save money. However, 27 months later, although the program still exists in principle, it's barely noticed in physical form.
The multi-year program was conceived by the CRA to keep revenue in the community and at the time an economic analysis of Avon Park showed for every $100 spent at a locally-owned business, $45 went back into the community and local tax base, and for every $100 spent at a non-local chain store, only $13 went back to the surrounding community.
But since then, those numbers have become moot as Buy Main Street Avon Park has stuttered and faltered almost to a stop.
The idea was for merchants to offer exclusive discounts and on-site savings to consumers with a free Buy Main Street card. The cards were and are still available at remaining participating businesses, available at the CRA office in City Hall, 110 E. Main St., the Avon Park Chamber of Commerce, 28 E. Main Street, the Highlands County CVB, 501 S. Commerce Avenue or print online at www.AvonParkCRA.com.
Maria Sutherland, Avon Park administrative services director and city clerk, said the Buy Main Street program was originally designed and marketed by Casey Wohl, marketing coordinator for the Sebring CRA and owner of Grey Dog Communications and marketing consultant, while under contract with the CRA. Sutherland said the CRA spent about $1,600 to print 1,000 full-color, glossy Buy Avon Park brochures and cards.
Wohl, who's from Avon Park, said the Buy Downtown Sebring is still going strong, with 36 business members and about 1,000 members registered online. She said Avon Park's program's decline is probably due to the city trying to market the program on its own. She said she originally helped launch the program's website, put together monthly merchant meetings, designed a media outreach plan and put out an electronic newsletter, among other promotional efforts.
"I think it's disappointing. I want to see all three (Highlands County) cities thriving. As for what happened in Avon Park, I think it was a lack of marketing. I'm not sure why they discontinued the contract," she said.
Currently, at least seven of the 10 original Buy Main Street businesses are still technically, but maybe not actively, participating in the program. When a customer visits with a Buy Main Street card, they can save money on everything from professional services such as business consulting, hair salons, counseling and massage therapy, to dining, retail and animal care.
When it was founded, former CRA Executive Director Wes Hoaglund said, "We hope Avon Park residents and visitors alike take advantage of these savings and support our small business owners in Avon Park's Main Street District who are the backbone of our economy."
However, Maia Fowler, Avon Park CRA coordinator, said another problem keeping the "Buy Main Street" program in the minds of consumers is that area businesses frequently open and close. She said newer business are often not even aware Buy Main Street even exists. According to Sperling's Best Places to live, Avon Park's economic growth is expected to be 20.4 percent over the next ten years.
"There's just not enough businesses involved. When it originally started, I wasn't around. I don't think they went to enough businesses to get everyone involved," she said. "Businesses at the time were hurting for money and part of the idea was to get people to learn about the CRA. Now, the focus is more on events and beautification."
At his office in the Jacaranda Hotel, one of the Buy Avon Park founders, Don Appelquist, chairman of the Main Street CRA Advisory Board from 2011 to 2013 and dean of resource development for South Florida Community College, said the lack of interest in the Buy Main Street program isn't "terribly disappointing" and thinks there are probably better ways to market the area on the limited resources of the CRA, like downtown events Fowler mentioned.
"I don't know what kind of expectations I (originally) had. The object was to encourage shopping downtown and with positive marketing it may do better. We tried this and if it doesn't work, we move on," he said.
According to the CRA, the consumer benefits of the Buy Main Street cards is there is no fee, emailed event notifications and instant savings, like those offered by Christina De La Fuente, owner of VIP Grooming, 928 W. Main St. She said she got on board when the program started because "it sounded like a good idea" and began offering 10 percent off her services. Over the years, she said she couldn't recall anyone using the card.
"I don't know why people don't use it. Maybe it isn't advertised enough. I think it's a good idea," she said, as groomed dogs barked behind her.
Another merchant, Amanda Carter of Mane Salon, 34 E. Main St., said she gave out about 100 cards when the program began and has seen less than five come in to be used at her hair salon. She said the cards are probably left out of sight, out of mind.
"I just think people forget about it; it just gets tucked away and not presented," she said. "It's a good idea but the problem is just remembering to use it."
For more information about Buy Main Street Avon Park, see www.AvonParkCRA.com or call (863) 452-2039.