Washougal on the rise, again

Downtown still grapples with vacancies, change in shopping habits

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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Hard hats are an everyday sight once again in downtown Washougal, where $2.5 million worth of construction projects could attract new small businesses and possibly reinvigorate urban renewal plans derailed by Clark County’s still slumping economy.

But the Main Street projects, which include a $500,000 exterior makeover of the existing True Value Hardware store and a $1.7 million commercial building, are far less extravagant than plans issued four years ago.

Then, developers intended to build $45 million worth of buildings surrounding Washougal’s centerpiece, Reflection Park. Only one of those buildings, the $14 million Washougal Town Square, has been completed and no start dates have been set for its three companions.

Town Square developer Lone Wolf Development recently broke ground on a different Washougal building. The company’s $1.8 million project on the northeast corner of Love and Main streets will feature office and retail spaces that can be configured for very small companies that need as little as 450 square feet, said Adam Taylor, a spokesman for Washougal-based Lone Wolf.

His company hopes the smaller tenant space sizes will encourage startups and tiny firms to relocate or open offices in downtown Washougal.

“It will give folks the ability to test the waters with their business concept,” Taylor said.

Longer term, it also could help fill the half-vacant, 50,000-square-foot Town Square, which opened in 2007. The project has drawn few tenants to its street-level retail space, upstairs offices and underground parking garage.

“If someone has a larger, more successful business and they need 1,500 square feet, we can accommodate that,” Taylor said.

So far, the Town Square development includes a few office tenants upstairs and a ground-floor ice cream shop, pizza restaurant and dance academy. But Town Square, the most prominent and attractive building in a struggling downtown district, lacks energy due to its high number of vacant retail spaces.

“There’s a significant amount of vacant retail space,” Taylor acknowledged.

Lone Wolf Development seems to have the capital to weather poor business conditions that have dampened demand for commercial space downtown. The company is owned by part-time Washougal resident Wes Hickey, son of the late Ray Hickey, who once owned Vancouver-based shipping company Tidewater Barge Lines.

As for Lone Wolf’s original plans for the other three buildings that would take up two more blocks in downtown Washougal, construction has been delayed, due to the uncertain economy, Taylor said.

The projects could go forward or return to the drawing board, depending on the type of commercial space in demand when Lone Wolf is ready to break ground, Taylor said. Original plans called for a mixture of ground-floor retail space, live-work apartment units, second-floor offices and an organic grocery store.

Meanwhile, “We’re building the incubator building because we feel there’s a need for that kind of space in downtown Washougal,” he said.

Startup space

A weak economy isn’t Lone Wolf’s only problem. Shopping habits also have changed dramatically since 2004, when Lone Wolf Development first proposed its downtown Washougal projects, which were to complement a $6.5 million investment in roads and the refurbished Reflection Park and its public plaza.

In 2007, the city commissioned a $60,000 study that projected nearby “affluent baby boomers” could support upscale retailers, such as Ann Taylor and Ethan Allen in downtown Washougal. But boomers have “become much more conservative than they were three years ago,” said Pam Lindloff, a retail real estate expert with NAI Norris Beggs and Simpson.

Lindloff called downtown Washougal a secondary location for retail businesses, which operate best when in high-traffic areas. “The stores in secondary locations will continue to struggle until the economy returns,” she said.

While the newest projects move forward, Washougal planners have not received any proposals to redevelop other space in the downtown core, said Mitch Kneipp, the city’s interim community development director.

He said the city has not pressured Lone Wolf to complete the projects it still has listed on the city’s drawing board.

“Unfortunately, a lot of businesses have had to wait and see,” Kneipp said.