CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Little by little, South Charleston's business community is getting a facelift.
With the help of a program that recognizes their effort, business and building owners are voluntarily painting and sprucing up their storefronts.
So far, improvements have been made to the exteriors of 33 businesses in the city over the past two years.
The city had a grant program for businesses to revitalize the outside of their buildings years ago, said Bob Anderson, business recruiter for the city. Now, on the other hand, all the businesses get is a certificate and a little recognition at City Council meetings.
"All of them are doing it at their own expense," Anderson said. "All we're giving them is a certificate. ... It's so nice having people cooperate with you, especially at their expense."
D Street LLC, which owns the Family Dollar building on D Street and a building at 600 D. Street that includes the Happy Days Café, improved the outsides of both of those buildings, said Darrell Rolston, a partner in D Street LLC.
Rolston said the Happy Days building was painted and a new awning went up at Family Dollar.
"We like to keep our buildings looking nice," he said. "Tenants don't like to rent buildings that look like they're run down."
South Charleston Mayor Frank Mullens said part of the reason for the program's success is that the city first invested in the downtown area, improving the streetscapes with about half a million dollars beginning in 2008.
"One of the reasons we did the streetscape is that we hoped it would be contagious," Mullens said. "Everyone saw that we made an investment in downtown and that helped encourage them to make an investment in their buildings, too."
And improving the look of businesses not only makes the city look better, it also brings in foot traffic, which could lead to an increase in business, said Tara Elder, director of the Women's Business and Training Center in Beckley.
When businesses participate, it gives cities a unified look that offers a good first impression to passersby, she said.
"Those façade programs encourage the whole community to step up and make their community better as a whole, especially the business community," Elder said.
She added that when she's traveling alone just looking at the outside of a building gives her an idea of the safety of the business, whether or not it will have what she wants, and how welcoming it will be.
"Usually people go with their first impression," Elder said.
But she warned that business owners shouldn't only rely on improvements to the outside of their facilities. Business owners should also work to improve the interior of their facilities as well as improving customer service.
"The main focus is on making sure the customer has a good experience from the get go," Elder said.
Kristina Oliver, state director of the West Virginia Small Business Development Center, said a building's outer appearance is important for first impressions.
"Just as people do, your business makes a first impression," Oliver said. "You want that impression to be positive and inviting to prospective clients. No matter what kind of business you're in, your credibility will benefit from a clean, fresh, well-lit appearance.
"If the exterior of the building or a display looks faded, run down or out of date, it signals a lack of care," Oliver said. "If you don't care about how your own business looks, how will a customer trust you with their business?"
Changing and updating a façade helps keep businesses visible and interesting, she said.
A study by Main Street West Virginia concluded that 70 percent of business owners reported an increase in sales after making façade improvements, Marsha Humphrey, state coordinator the revitalization program, said. The study also indicated 90 percent of participants in a façade improvement program were pleased with the renovations and got favorable comments from customers, Humphrey said.
Pat Burchett, owner of Celebrations Etc., took down an old cloth awning last summer and put up a new tile one at the business's D Street location. While she hasn't noticed any specific increase in her business, she has noticed a difference in the city around here.
"It looks a lot cleaner because it looks like everyone is doing something," Burchett said.
The façade improvement program is only part of what's happening to South Charleston's business community. City leaders say the city is booming with business openings. Anderson and Mullens count 10 businesses that have opened within the city limits over the past few weeks. That's partly because the businesses are looking better because the façade improvement program, Anderson said.
The new businesses range from an insurance office and a law office to a dancewear store, to restaurants and a barbershop.
"We're so thrilled about South Charleston," Anderson said. "We're so diversified. We got something for everybody."
Besides the small businesses, the Spanish automotive manufacturer Gestamp recently located in the stamping plant in South Charleston. Company officials have said they intend to hire 300 to 400 people immediately with the potential for more in the future. The city offered tax incentives to Gestamp as a way of competing with other cities that were in the running to attract the manufacturer.
Smith Fasteners, of Charleston, recently purchased land in the South Charleston Industrial Park. Mullen said the company planned to build and expand its business in the city. Smith Fasteners President Jim Smith told the Gazette in August the company had no immediate plans to build there.
Anderson and Mullens say there are plenty of ways the city aims at being business friendly. For one, the city offers every new business a break on its B&O taxes for the first three years. New businesses pay only 25 percent of the tax the first year, half the second year and pay 75 percent the third year.
Cathy Nelson, owner of the Happy Days Café on D Street, said when she bought her business nearly three years ago, she was determined to be in South Charleston. The city has special events frequently that help to bring in crowds to the eatery, she said.
"It's a wonderful place to have a business," Nelson said.
Mullens said the city's quick response to the problems and concerns of business owners is another way the city is business friendly.
"It's never one thing, why they pick us," Mullens said. "One is location -- that's undersold. You can get on the interstate in South Charleston and you can be anywhere - whether it's shopping or just to go see your aunt, whatever it may be. You can go anywhere."
Reach Lori Kersey at lori.ker...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.