RevitalizeWA: 'The new economy is the Main Street economy'

People at conference in Vancouver heard that message, then saw how it plays out here

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

Updated: May 19, 2013, 9:04 PM

 

A long-vacant lot near Esther Short Park is a place of pride for downtown Vancouver boosters.

Why?

Instead of passively waiting for development as the block becomes an eyesore, Vancouver's Downtown Association took the initiative to spruce it up with flags and flowers, creating a modest temporary park until the property is developed for retail, housing, and offices.

It's hardly beautiful, and few people actually tread the gravel paths to smell the flowers or glance at the 10 flags overhead. But it's a good enough example putting a happy face on a civic embarrassment that Lee Rafferty, VDA's executive director, showed it off to about a dozen small-town historic preservationists from across the state who were in Vancouver last week for a statewide conference on "Main Street" revitalization initiatives.

"It's amazing," said the irrepressible Rafferty, standing at Block 10 near the end of her 90-minute tour. "It's so much better than a chain-link fence."

The RevitalizeWA conference at the Hilton Vancouver Washington attracted many visitors who'd rarely visited here before, or had never stopped in the city so often bypassed by Washingtonians on their way to Portland. These were people with a keen eye for urban vitality, blight, and dead space. Those on the tour said they were generally impressed with downtown's urban form.

"I like it," said Mark Nuss, a board member of Historic Downtown Snohomish. What he learned from the conference, the small-business owner said, is that "almost all small downtowns are the same, have the same problems."

Vancouver stands out from many small towns, though, because it's one of the oldest towns in the Northwest and because it loses vast numbers of business customers to Oregon's sales tax-free stores. Because it's in Portland's shadow, Vancouver's large size is often overlooked.

"I like to say that the city of Vancouver is the fourth-largest in Washington and the second-largest in the state of Oregon," Vancouver Mayor pro-tem Larry Smith said during the conference's opening session, a reference to regional economic ties that the audience of about 200 seemed to catch.

The conference's keynote speaker flagged long-term concerns facing Vancouver and cities looking for a path out of the brutal economic downturn. Charles Marohn, executive director of the Minnesota-based nonprofit Strong Towns, told the 200 conference participants that current strategies for attracting and financing development aren't working and that a new, more financially sustainable model is needed. Marohn said many cities embrace a misguided "if you build it, they will come" strategy of creating infrastructure for new suburban development rather than supporting an urban environment that is adaptable over time to a variety of businesses and other uses.

The present system of using federal, state, and local financing to attract investment is flawed because those investments don't cover the long-term costs that development imposes on a community, Marohn said. A better strategy, he said, is to build or rebuild an urban form that can attract uses that change over time — "tiny investments, incrementally over time," he said.

"This country will not be successful without people who are focused on Main Street pushing it far more than they do now," Marohn said. "The new economy is the Main Street economy."

Vancouver's promise

On her tour, Rafferty showed off the downtown highlights — while ignoring even the most obvious weak spots that caught the eyes of skilled observers — with justified pride. Vancouver is, after all, a city that has blossoming potential to build its impressive but under-used assets — the 365-acre Fort Vancouver site filled with buildings awaiting restoration and 20 miles of Columbia River waterfront — as politicians debate whether to invest in a transformative new highway and light-rail link to Oregon.

The tour started just outside the convention center at the Hilton, with Rafferty pointing to Torque Coffee Roasters and Loowit Brewery just across Columbia Street from the convention center entrance. Rafferty pointed out the Mighty Bowl food cart, parked on Columbia Street, and discussed efforts to establish a local food cart culture. "It's just a matter of time," she said.

As the group moved east along Sixth Street, Rafferty pointed out the street trees, some wrapped in lights, and flower baskets that are intended to make the downtown walk more inviting. VDA and others have added 140 trees and 142 flower boxes in recent years, Rafferty said.

Rafferty made no mention of the fenced-in half-block south of the Vancouvercenter condominiums and apartments until someone asked the obvious question about the lot, with its three boxes of galvanized steel. "Those are our chicken coops," Rafferty joked, before disclosing that they're future elevator shafts for a housing building still on the drawing board.

Rafferty took the visitors past a vacant lot at the foot of Main Street, once the site of a "decrepit" hotel, that is to be redeveloped for offices and retail. The group walked past both sparkling and tired storefronts on Main Street. Many downtown buildings still have vacant second floors, she said, but those will fill in time.

Rafferty noted that unsightly awnings are being removed from some historic buildings, and she discussed how a former C-Tran bus transfer station at Seventh and Main had been transformed into an environmentally oriented public plaza called Turtle Place. She urged the visitors not to shy away from big challenges like creating new public spaces on blighted property. "My biggest piece of advice is, don't be afraid," she said.

At the Main Event Sports Grill, 800 Main St., Rafferty bragged about a facade improvement project financed in part by a grant through the Main Street program administered by her association. The new facade of corrugated metal covered unsightly, unreinforced brick, she said.

"It's 3,000 percent better," she said.

Dan Smith, executive director of the Historic Downtown Prosser Association, didn't agree. "I can't believe the corrugated metal is an improvement," he said.

The visitors continued past other breweries and coffee shops, either existing or in the works. They took inside tours of the Kiggins Theatre, Devine Consign, and the new central library before winding down at Block 10.

With 3,000 volunteer hours and an investment of about $15,000, the block is now an asset to downtown rather than a liability. Rafferty's central message to the revitalization activists: "If you have a property that is not producing anything, adopt it."