Like a lot of small to midsize downtowns trying to hang on in the age of Amazon, Lexington has its share of empty storefronts. In an effort to juice the downtown scene, Main Street Lexington hosted a Shark Tank-like pitch competition Wednesday night in which eight local entrepreneurs competed for $60,000 worth of prize money from the state to grow a new or existing business. Jessie Knadler filed this report.
Accacia Mullen has been sewing her own eclectic, retro-modern fashions since she was nine. About a year ago, she got sick of her nine-to-five and decided to turn her passion into a full on business. Make It Sew … that is, ‘Make It S-E-W’ … is Accacia’s fabric and sewing studio in downtown Lexington.
ACCACIA MULLEN: I think everybody should know how to sew.
But she knows that retail, especially in a small town, can be tough. So in addition to selling high quality fabrics and notions, she offers classes. She does alterations. And … she’s slammed.
MULLEN: I hardly get a day off. I’m busy enough I know that I’m doing something that this community needs.
Accacia knows that her business can grow … but that takes capital. So she heard about this 8-week business training program put on by the organization Main Street Lexington. Its mission is to enhance and promote the downtown. Similar programs have taken place in Staunton, Waynesboro and elsewhere.
The training program is structured like a business school crash course for local entrepreneurs. Participants had to write a business plan. Accacia’s was strong enough that she was selected as one of eight finalists to compete for $60,000 worth of prize money from the state to grow her business.
MULLEN: I need more space, I need more equipment. And I need to hire somebody to help with all of the people who have alterations projects or who are learning to sew.
Wendy Orrison was also selected as a finalist.
She’s a lifelong fitness coach who co-owns a successful yoga and Pilates studio. Her dream is to open a boutique cardio studio in a second location downtown.
WENDY ORRISON: There is no high tech, state of the art spin studio around.
Orrison and her two partners are vying for $22,000 worth of grant money, half of what it will take to buy the high tech bikes and equipment and renovate the space.
ORRISON: We want to show the judges that we’ve got skin in the game. If we open in the black, we can make it work.
[fade up Launch Lex]
In order to get their hands on some of that delicious grant money, Accacia, Wendy and the six other finalists had to go before a panel of judges from outside the area at a public event called Launch Lex Wednesday night. Each finalist had three minutes to convince the judges their business idea was worthy of investment.
Here’s Accacia before the judges:
ACCACIA: After five months in my current location, with classes filling up and new customers daily, Make it Sew is bursting at the seams.
She asked the judges for $18,000.
[fade up Wendy riding in on scooter]
Wendy rode in on a scooter blowing a whistle. She was joined by her two partners.
WENDY: I’m Wendy Orrison …We are fLex Fitness.
She pitched fLex Fitness as an anchor for the downtown.
WENDY: You offer something besides retail.
The judges asked each of the contestants some questions, then deliberated behind closed doors. Finally, the winners were announced. Heliotrope Brewery received $20,000. Just Games gaming studio got $10,000. Lex Running Shop received $15,000. And Make it Sew … walked away with $15,000.
Accacia held up her giant check and sipped a glass of wine.
ACCACIA: I’m pumped! I’m so excited. They say it’s fake but it’s a big check that says $15,000 on it. I think they believed in what I’m doing and that expanding Make It Sew right now is good for me and good for the community.
But … it’s back to the drawing board for fLex Fitness.
WENDY: We’re super surprised. We just think that wellness is so much more important than stuff. I think they picked four good business owners. We don’t know if we’re going to go forward or not.
Chiedo Johns was one of the judges. He’s founder the tech company Chiedo Labs in Harrisonburg. He explained what the judges were looking for.
JOHNS: One, will it open new businesses downtown, new storefronts? And two, will it create jobs? There are a lot of good business ideas. Some of them, I’m not convinced they would create jobs.
STEPHANIE WILKINSON: I would have given money to every single contestant because I think they’re all incredibly deserving.
Stephanie Wilkinson is executive director of Main Street Lexington, the host of the event:
WILKINSON: We all know that retail is really difficult these days. The online world is sucking the life out of a lot of things, and one of the benefits about being in this program is that they really researched their market and they really understood that you can’t just be a store anymore. You have to be a store and an experience.
Because as she says, local is everything. Oh, and all these stores have to be open for business by September 30.