Flying flags for downtown

Advocates clean up area, work to attract businesses

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 

Promoters of downtown Vancouver are not only cleaning the city up block-by-block, they are filling its empty spaces startup by startup.

"I'd love to see a downtown filled with businesses like ours," said George DeCarlo, owner and CEO of Woobox, the latest tech firm on a growing list of similar companies relocating to Vancouver's downtown core.

DeCarlo, who launched Woobox in the Kelso area about two years ago, admits he wanted proximity to the Portland-Vancouver talent pool of web- and tech-savvy digital designers. He also was very attracted by downtown Vancouver's retro and funky feel, said DeCarlo, 35. The Woobox staff of seven employees is moving next week into second-floor space being renovated into an office suite in the former Boyd's 88 Center dime store at 808 Main St.

DeCarlo also thinks the space will be approved by his twenty-something and thirtysomething-year-old employees, the typical age group he'll be hiring for the growing business.

"We have hardwood floors and brick walls," DeCarlo said. "Most of what you see real estate-wise just isn't that kind of creative space."

Woobox, which designs social media marketing applications, is exactly the kind of small, tech-focused firm downtown advocates are trying to attract, said Lee Rafferty, executive director of Vancouver's Downtown Association.

Her group's efforts include everything from Saturday clean-up events to an all-out makeover of the city-owned "Block 10" from a forlorn vacant lot to a colorful and inviting pedestrian walkthrough.

With Block 10, the downtown group implored city officials to remove chain link fencing around the block, said Lee Coulthard, an association board member who spearheaded the block transformation. It now features a border of well-maintained shrubbery, wooden planters, pedestrian pathways and a string of flagpoles that sport the colors of spring and summer.

Coulthard, a downtown resident, said it would be thrilling if a developer purchased the empty block to build a high rise, despite all the hard work his committee put into making over the block.

"If someone were to build on it, that would mean jobs and that would put more people downtown," he said. "The more people we have down here, the more downtown will develop."

He said Vancouver's downtown group, which is supported by membership fees and the state-funded Main Street Tax Credit Incentive program, started the Block 10 project as part of an effort to activate pedestrian movement from one side of the downtown core to the other.

"People don't like to walk by chain link fencing and weeds," or dark buildings, he said.

The group also works with the city to promote and define the region by putting downtown Vancouver on the map, Alisa Pyszka, Vancouver's economic development director, said during the group's quarterly meeting on Thursday.

Pyszka said those efforts are attractive, not only to visitors and groups of conventioneers, but to businesses, from tiny tech start-ups such as Woobox to Integra, the telecom company that recently announced plans to relocate its headquarters and 500 employees from Portland to east Vancouver's former Hewlett-Packard campus, now owned by SEH America, in 2014.

"Everything you're doing is critical to our (business) recruiting efforts," said Pyszka, who's department often acts as a liaison to incoming businesses. "Downtown and the waterfront are common attractions," she said.