After a theft in 2012 that devastated many businesses in Winter Garden, the Historic Winter Garden Merchants Association is finally starting to get back on its feet. The merchants have been working to rebuild since thousands of dollars were stolen through wire fraud by Jo Ann Lacey Anderson, a bookkeeper for numerous businesses in the area and secretary for the merchants association — taking a total of $1.7 million from the Winter Garden community. The group has reorganized and, this year, is bringing a variety of new ideas and events to further spice up the city and attract newcomers to the historical area.
“It kind of fell apart, and now we’re seeing if we can get it back up again,” said Wendy Byrd, president of the Historic Winter Garden Merchants Association.
The merchants guild is a small group of shopkeepers, restaurateurs and professionals who work closely with the city of Winter Garden to make local businesses more visible and profitable.
Byrd, of Byrd Accounting, was appointed as president this year, along with an almost entirely new board of members: Vice President Dennis Jones (Winter Garden Wheel Works), Secretary Alauna Friskics (Garden Theatre), Treasurer Mike Scorsone (Winter Garden Pizza), Gina Vigeant (Winter Garden Fitness) and Jerry Pegram (Tri & Run of West Orange). The former association president, Bert Valdes (Moon Cricket Grille), and Byrd are the only remaining members of the previous board.
The association has developed an entirely new focus, hoping to create a variety of small events that take place more often, while still keeping the beloved, large-scale events established by the merchants in the past — such as the Corn Harvest Fest and the Cruz-N Car Show.
“Many people visit Winter Garden to explore the city’s fascinating history, but we also need to make sure we are looking toward the future,” Byrd said.
“What they’ve done in the past is one big event each year, which is great,” she said.
But, with those large, once-a-year events, Byrd fears that people will come out all day and leave exhausted and might not return until next year.
“So, I’m promoting the mini event,” she said.
One of the upcoming new ideas is Shop Small Saturday, an event that will encourage customers to support small business that make up the heart of downtown Winter Garden. Another upcoming event is the Salsa Fest, which debuted last year, and possibly a new citrus event. The merchants are working to step up the occasions to make them better every year as they continue to rebuild.
“These events will capture and highlight what makes our city unique,” Byrd said.
The merchants believe that if more activities are going on downtown more often, those who visit will be drawn to come back to explore the shops, restaurants, museums and everything else the city has to offer.
Businesses in Winter Garden have looked to the merchants association in the past to make things happen around town and bring in more patrons. However, they cannot do it alone. To make these events a reality, sponsors are needed.
The association is hoping to partner with even more merchants within the city to together bring fresh and exciting activities to residents and visitors.
“What we need to do is promote our city,” Byrd said. “There are over 100 small businesses in the downtown area, and we’re going to work really hard to indentify all of them and see what we can do with a team unit.”
Byrd wants to work on soliciting more retail shops in the downtown area, as well, which is currently heavily dominated by restaurants.
“Too many people believe that downtown Winter Garden is just a place to eat, and although we pride ourselves on the range and diversity of food options in our city, we also want to highlight just how much there is to do and see in our beautiful, historic downtown,” she said.
The association is also making an effort toward active marketing techniques. Members have created a new website, wgmerchants.org, and are working on updating it frequently to keep the public informed of happenings. They are also considering putting up a billboard somewhere in the area.
The new and improved Corn Harvest Fest will take place Saturday, Nov. 8. Shop Small Saturday is scheduled for Nov. 29, the Saturday following Thanksgiving, and the next Salsa Fest will be Saturday, May 2.
The merchants association will release further details about more events once partnerships and sponsors are established.
To get involved with the association, contact Byrd at [email protected] or call (407) 656-5400. The public is also invited to attend the next general membership meeting, scheduled for Aug. 14.