Revitalizing Va-Hi: Virginia-Highland District curating small businesses for N. Highland Avenue

Virginia-Highland District (formerly Beautify Va-Hi) recently launched a campaign to involve all stakeholders in proactively filling commercial vacancies along N. Highland Avenue, from Atkins Park to the Amsterdam-Highland intersection.

“It started as more of a – hey, is this just something that I’m feeling?  Let’s see if others agree and would like to see a more thriving business district. Because of COVID -19, there are more vacancies, so there’s an opportunity to curate a symbiotic business district that elevates the businesses. We started a petition to see if there was agreement,” said Lindsay Wheeler, the organization’s vice-president and a former commercial real estate executive who teaches yoga in her spare time at Highland Yoga.

At the end of August, the petition had 1,600 signatures and resident feedback on potential businesses to fill vacancies. To curate the list, Wheeler and the Board considered local businesses with  4.7+ customer ratings, more than one local shop, good brand awareness etc. to share with landlords and prospective tenants.

“It isn’t just on the businesses to succeed, it isn’t just on the landlords, it isn’t just about the residents  – it is actually all three and what we’re trying to do is serve as a bridge,” Wheeler said. “To be a voice for the residents for what is desired, to work in partnership with the landlords to then bring those appropriate businesses into the neighborhood.”

Lindsay’s husband Tyler Wheeler, a small business owner and practicing physician at the Family Practice Center of Atlanta who serves as Treasurer of Virginia-Highland District, is “driving the discussions with landlords.”

So far, Tyler has met with Va-Hi commercial real estate landlords like The Simpson Org, Stuart Meddin, Tom Murphy and Lynn Dewitt. Even though the landlords work with their own brokers to source tenants, they were receptive to the nonprofit’s involvement because of their resident connection.

“If I reach out to East Pole Coffee, it’s a much more powerful message coming on behalf of the residents – ‘Hey we want you here, we think you would thrive and we are taking a curated approach to who goes where’ – it starts to mitigate risk for them.  And we’ve created a bridge and a pathway to a landlord,“ Lindsay said.

Co-founder Katie Voelpel shows off a viola during a planting session along N. Highland Avenue.

This was the vision of founder Katie Voelpel, who sought to put her Masters of Architecture thesis into action by bringing together community members and business owners around beauti?cation, maintenance, events  and “reinvigorating the vibe”  for residents and visitors.

“I was really into community design and linking districts together in a way that could be digested by the general public,” Voelpel said. She involved residents in semi-annual plantings with local business in-kind support and funding from a Va-Hi Perks discount card.

“We started with 18 planters two years ago and now we have 100 in all three intersection,” Voelpel said.

Today, Virginia-Highland District has assumed the role of a business association.

“It’s equal parts the curation of the tenants that go into the vacant spaces, the engagement of the landlords and potential developers and community engagement,” Wheeler said.

Upcoming events adapted to COVID-19’s new normal, including showing E.T. in North Highland Park on October 16 and restaurant week, October 12-18.

“Restaurant week is now going to be a takeout bingo. It does have a new twist to it,  4 or 5 different bingo cards fill out for a raffle prize,” Voelpel said.

“One of the best things we can do is bring really special events to the neighborhood – not just Summerfest but Atlanta Food & Wine festival, independent film festival things like that.  To up our game as a neighborhood to draw residents in. We want it to also draw visitors in as a destination location,” Wheeler said.

Ultimately, community support is needed for local businesses to thrive.

“We recognize filling the vacancies is step one. Community engagement in events is step two,” Wheeler said.

Learn more at virginiahighlanddistrict.com.

Volunteers pose after planting flowers to beautify the Virginia-Highland District.
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