Downtown with Debbie Malenfant

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A long-time Elizabeth City entrepreneur is now working to attract new businesses to the city’s downtown business district. Last fall, Debbie Malenfant, a business development professional and former owner of the popular City Wine Sellar, was named director of Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc. (ECDI). The non-profit’s goal is to beautify and revitalize downtown Elizabeth City, while maintaining its historic integrity. Malenfant moved here from Amesbury, Mass. with her family at age four and now considers herself a true Southerner (even though she still roots for the Patriots). Here’s what she thinks about the present and future of Elizabeth City’s downtown.

Tell us about ECDI.
Our mission is to be the catalyst of revitalization for downtown. Many think of us as the “group that does the Potato Festival,” which we are (and do it fantastically), but we do so much more. We promote our wonderful downtown and its many assets and businesses by improving its appearance, safety and functionality. We also coordinate and host community events and activities and work with retailers, business owners, property owners and investors to encourage economic development in downtown.

What short—and long-term goals have your office established?
In the short term, we want to do a little spiffing up and improve the appearance of downtown, as well as improve the perception. We want to tell the story of downtown, create an excitement around it and encourage our community to take pride in it. Long term, simply stated: We want our first level storefronts filled with successful businesses and our upper level spaces filled with residents. We want shoppers shopping, diners dining, artists arting and people living in our downtown. When people are asked where they most want to spend their time and money, we want their first answer to be “Downtown.”

Why is downtown revitalization important?
People say that downtown is the heart of a community. In reality, it’s the soul. Downtown represents the essence of the city – it’s who we are; it’s our personality, so to speak. Downtown embodies our history, our uniqueness. You can go to a shopping center and, most likely, it will look and be like any other shopping center. Maybe it will have different stores than the last one you visited, but it’s still the same – squares and boxes. Our downtowns hold our spirit and our character. And, even though nearly every town has a downtown, they’re all different and each represents the quintessence of who they are. We need to keep our downtown alive, unique and vibrant for the benefit of our city as a whole.

What types of new businesses do you envision downtown?
As we work to revitalize downtown, we have to remember and focus on the fact that it will never be exactly like it was years ago. We need to appreciate and honor our history and architectural integrity while re-inventing ourselves. We aren’t an urban city, and our population density doesn’t support nabbing the big-name retailers and chain restaurants for our downtown. We need to focus on recruiting entrepreneurs who have unique products and who build their businesses on experiences, whether it is shopping, dining, cultural, lifestyle or living experiences.

What jobs have prepared you for ECDI?
My background is small business and entrepreneurial-based, having been part of multiple startup businesses. I have experience as a consultant, helping to develop strategic and marketing plans for businesses, and I’ve taught numerous business courses and workshops. I love business development and marketing. I have a love for downtown Elizabeth City and have been actively involved in many organizations working for the betterment of downtown. That said, the one thing that has prepared me most for this role is the relationships I have developed over the years as a member of the community. One cannot do a job like this without collaboration, partnerships and teamwork, no matter your previous experience.

Any advice for prospective business owners?
1) Understand that there is a difference between bootstrapping a business and being undercapitalized. You should always be resourceful and creative with your resources when starting out (bootstrapping). You should start your business with enough financial resources to sustain you for at least your first year (and realize that you may have to go that long without taking a salary). Starting a new business is exciting and fun, but you will not generate enough money to pay your bills from day one. I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but things always take much longer and cost way more than expected. Running out of cash shuts you down.
2) Be different and provide an amazing customer service experience, bar none. Whether you are selling a product or a service, it’s the experience that will bring people back.
3) Don’t assume that if you build it, people will come. Market yourself consistently and regularly. “One-and-done” advertising doesn’t cut it. Spend money, don’t chintz, on marketing your business.
4) Don’t get so caught up working in your business that you don’t work on your business. Business development is important. Constantly evaluate and make changes.
5) Be creative in every single aspect of your business—except accounting!

What’s the best-kept secret in Elizabeth City?
Our downtown, of course. I’m surprised every day by the number of local folks who don’t know how amazing downtown Elizabeth City is.