Leavitt hears upbeat news on downtown tour

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter


Updated: October 10, 2011, 9:15 PM

photoVancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt stops in front of Source, a new climbing gym near 12th and Main streets, while touring downtown Vancouver with Vancouver’s Downtown Association.

(/The Columbian)

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Mayor Tim Leavitt tagged along on a Monday foot tour of downtown Vancouver, giving business owners and advocates a chance to spotlight refurbished buildings, a new climbing gym and plans for the vacant Koplan’s Home Furnishings store.

Tour guides also announced several new downtown businesses, highlighted the sector’s budding after-hours scene and talked about a pilot parking program for hourly wage downtown workers. They estimated that about 72 people have been hired downtown as a result of recent activity.

“I can see there’s momentum building,” Leavitt said at the end of the hourlong tour.

If you go

• What: Vancouver’s Downtown Association quarterly public meeting for downtown Vancouver merchants, business owners and landowners to discuss the group’s $100,000 facade improvement program and learn more about new downtown businesses.

• When: 7:30 a.m. Thursday.

• Where: Hilton Vancouver Washington, 301 W. Sixth St., Vancouver.

He commended leaders of the 120-member Vancouver’s Downtown Association for its grass-roots efforts to spruce up the downtown core and market the section to new businesses. The tour aimed to update Leavitt on the area’s ongoing redevelopment efforts, said Lee Rafferty, the association’s executive director. Participants in the soggy excursion heard about nearly $5 million worth of downtown redevelopment projects, including: the $1.5 million The Source Climbing Gym, the Kiggins Theater’s marquee and the former Koplan’s at 1012 Washington St.

After sitting dark for more than two years, the second floor of the Koplan’s building has become the home office of Web design firm Gravitate, which recently purchased and moved into the second floor of the 20,000-square-foot former furniture store. Plans for the first floor are in the development stages.

An annex on the west side of the building was purchased by downtown developer Ryan Hurley, who plans to convert it to additional office space.

Hurley, who could not be reached for comment, is also developing the climbing gym and plans to start work renovating two additional downtown buildings — at 806 and 808 Main St. — soon, said Casey Wyckoff, a principal with LSW Architects.

LSW designed the modern climbing gym and made several smaller facade improvements to older buildings downtown. Wyckoff said the small exterior face-lifts indicate a continued interest in downtown, despite the slumping economy.

Mothballed projects include Killian Pacific’s $170 million Library Square adjacent to the new $38 million public library and a $1 billion mixed-use waterfront project of restaurants, retail, office and living space on the former Boise Cascade industrial site.

But smaller updates are a sign of coming attractions, Wyckoff said,

“They are the precursors to the larger projects,” he said.

Leavitt asked questions along the tour, checking with building owners on what they thought of the city’s permitting process and the layout of Vancouver’s downtown grid.

“Everything was reasonable,” said Heidi Johnson Bixby, who recently purchased the building on the northeast corner of 12th and Main streets. A $300,000 renovation is now under way to make the 4,700-square-foot building ready for Johnson Bixby’s financial advisory firm, Johnson Bixby and Associates.

But downtown business newcomer Tatum Dwyer-Seitz said she had a frustrating experience getting permits to renovate her downtown building on the northwest corner of 12th and Washington.

Dwyer-Seitz plans to move her eight-employee, Web-based wedding business, New and Blue, into the 4,700-square-foot building in December.

For downtown microbrewery owner Eric Surface, opening in downtown Vancouver offered an opportunity to avoid the high rents being charged in the trendier areas of Portland, he said.

Surface opened Mt. Tabor Brewing at 113 W. Ninth St. this fall, relocating the business from 7724 S.E. Stark St. in Portland.

“The (rent) price went from $1 per square foot to almost $2 there,” Surface said of the Portland address. “And for a business like mine that needs street frontage, it went to $2.50 per foot.”

Leavitt said all of the projects illuminate a wave of vitality that has spread through the sector and begun to make Vancouver’s Portland neighbors a bit nervous.

“When I hear from Portland’s elected officials, they are seriously concerned that once light rail comes to our community, we are going to be drawing businesses away from them,” he said.