When he grew tired of new customers expressing surprise at finding his hardware store in the heart of Woodland, Tom Golik figured it was time to raise downtown's profile. He pulled together a small group of civic-minded citizens, talked to leaders in city government and at the Port of Woodland, and helped launch an organization called Downtown Woodland Revitalization.
That was in September 2000. Last month Golik, now retired, put out word that he and the remaining handful of downtown activists were too few, and too weary, to continue. The organization will remain active and continue a summer concert series, according to its simple new release, but will pare down its meeting schedule and reduce its work "because of a lack of active members."
Certainly, plenty of work remains. Woodland, mostly located in Cowlitz County, is on no one's must-see list with its sleepy downtown and its distinctly local hangout Horseshoe Lake. While downtown's established businesses are holding their own, Golik concedes the city has had little success in attracting new retail businesses or offices to increase downtown traffic.
The Woodland association's search for new blood is common for business and civic organizations that prosper only when good, hard-working people are willing to give the precious commodity of their personal time. In Woodland's case, Golik says prospective volunteers are discouraged by the amount of time it takes to get things done in the community -- the association worked for eight years on securing new public restrooms for downtown, he says.
But the association's troubles go much deeper: the downtown business owners who are the direct beneficiaries of local improvements have sat on the sidelines, Golik says, while others have devoted their time to such civic improvements as downtown flower baskets, streetscape upgrades, Hoffman Plaza improvements, and the "Hot Summer Nights" concert series.
"They do their own thing," says Golik, 69. "They don't participate in much of anything."
The story is far different on another end of Southwest Washington, where the Downtown Camas Association is challenged to make the best use of the many people who want to volunteer. The association, less than 3 years old, has about 20 active volunteers and most have some stake in the city's downtown, says Carrie Schulstad, the association's vice president. Their problem is how to keep from burning out volunteers with their ambition and energy.
Schulstad recalls the association's early days, when founders were filled with ideas but hadn't yet learned how to slice vision into manageable work plans. A man showed up at an early meeting with an interest in volunteering. But as the ideas rolled like water without a flow restricter, the man finally pushed back his chair midmeeting and took flight with a final "I'll see you later." He has never reappeared, Schulstad said.
The state has its own Main Street program, operated within the Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation, to help communities like Woodland and Camas preserve historic downtowns and build on their best qualities. Both cities have tapped the program for advice and services, with predictably mixed results. There's also a national Main Street program, and the Camas association is already in pursuit of national recognition.
Taking on tasks for the good of the community and the health of the business district can seem a thankless task. But Golik and his band of activists have established a foundation that others can choose to build on for the good of the community. If they need ideas, they can find them in Camas.
Gordon Oliver is The Columbian's business editor. 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver; http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or firstname.lastname@example.org.