Analysis: East Vancouver shopping lacks what works in other parts of county

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As a community of shoppers, we have a lot of choices in Clark County on how and where to spend our money. With more than 50 shopping centers on the north side of the Columbia River, our shopping options are just around the corner.

As shoppers, we are in the driver's seat. Our vehicles and computers take us to the stuff. But as we look at today's retail environment in Clark County, we can see that the sense of community that once was part of our shopping experience has disappeared for many of us.

The challenge facing our retailers, I believe, is how to create some sense of community that will allow them to compete with the attractiveness of the well-planned Cascade Station shopping district or the revitalized Jantzen Beach mall, both in sales-tax-free Oregon, or with the convenience of online shopping.

A quiet revolution in the past 20 years has changed the way we shop in Clark County. During Vancouver's younger years, downtown was the action place for many of our purchases. In time, shopping faded in the downtown core as what is now Westfield Vancouver mall became the next big shopping destination. Gradually, cluster malls sprang up to serve new neighborhoods. And on the east side of the city, 164th and 192nd avenues developed mileslong strings of malls and stand-alone retail stores.

All the while, shoppers headed to Portland to avoid paying sales tax. Developers saw opportunity on the border and happily obliged with Jantzen Beach mall, Costco, Home Depot and Cascade Station just across the state line.

Kelly Love Parker, executive director of the Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, works with other business associations throughout the county to meet complex challenges that retailers face in attracting and keeping customers. Parker and her team are vigilant in monitoring consumer habits and changing demographics. Mushrooming population growth in east Clark County has produced additional competition within the county to shops in Vancouver's core area.

Parker estimates that $70 million of retail sales were lost to sales-tax-free merchants in the greater Portland area last year. And catalogue and online sales bring the merchandise to our doorsteps — without leaving home.

Parker is keenly aware of our dynamic, ever-changing business environment. It is a challenging balancing act to conduct business and create value when consumers have multiple options, including easily crossing a state line to save 8.4 percent sales tax.

Locals fight back

But as consumer dollars bleed to Oregon and online retailers, some Clark County businesses and shopping districts are fighting back. They are working to recapture some of that money by creating a sense of adventure surrounding shopping.

Vancouver's Downtown Association spends time and resources to create a happy ambiance of flower baskets, banners and upbeat events such as concerts, First Friday activities, Pub Crawls, Art Walks, Auto Shows and other events. This brings people to town for fun and opportunities to shop.

On ordinary days, downtown streets have little pedestrian traffic. Visitors feel little sense of community. Blocks are too long without visual breaks or places to rest.

But much can be done to implement what is called "gemuetlichkeit," a coziness that triggers feelings of wanting to linger in a place. My best Vancouver downtown find is the Divine Consign store on Main Street. It makes for a fun treasure hunt of bargain second-chance household items to freshen up my home. Best of all, the staff is largely made up of volunteer designers who know how to put things together for a good presentation.

Likewise, Uptown Village is a revitalized neighborhood shopping area with a community feel. A short walk along Main Street between McLoughlin and Fourth Plain boulevards reveals small businesses that appear to be locally owned and serve the neighborhood. The Blue Door Bakery was the best find with a walk-up window and a view of mouth-watering pastries. Four blocks of this street have potential for a community ambience. Yet, business hours posted are not user friendly; few are open in the evening, and the majority are closed Sundays.

The newer shopping clusters around 164th and 192nd avenues have been built without benefit of a master plan or a central vision. They have plenty of free parking and nationally recognized stores selling many of the essentials we need for our families and homes. Merchandise at these stores is useful and functional but holds few surprises. The young trees in parking lots hold promise of shade in future summers.

These shopping areas are new and efficient. There is little ambiance such as benches and outside seating to linger and rest between shopping. Some sidewalks do not connect to other stores. In many cases, walking between stores is unsafe. Inconvenience is built into the strip mall experience if it means driving to the stores or putting the kids back in the car and driving to the other side of the mall.

The East Vancouver Business Association is active in the east Vancouver area and has a strong desire to promote a sense of community. The association encourages merchants to maintain best practices with high environmental standards. The monthly Business to Business networking events stress business engagement with the community through fundraising for scholarships for the Evergreen School District, Clark College and Washington State University Vancouver, among other community collaborations.

Shoppers want more

Brent Erickson, executive director of the Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce, says many of today's shoppers want more than what the area now offers. The new demographic profiles of many Clark County shoppers are people highly educated, urban in outlook, curious and what marketers call early adopters, he has observed. They have moved into the area with their families as part of the high-tech workforce. Another surprising group of newcomers are the parents and grandparents who follow this new group to be close to children and grandchildren, and enjoy the quality of life … and advantageous tax structure (Washington is one of only seven U.S. states without a personal income tax).

This new segment of shoppers tends to be loyal to local shopping areas for their food, fuel and daily essentials. They enjoy a generous discretionary income, which can be spent in social shopping to freshen the home, wardrobes and travel.

Laura Hamley is a good representative of this group. A former North Hollywood, Calif., resident and publicist for the California Angels, she relocated to Washougal with her husband to be near their son and his family, which includes two grandchildren. Laura "loves the region" and buys all of her essentials in Clark County. But she said she gets bored with predictable merchandise. She recharges her energy by spending hours looking for new things with friends at Home Goods and DSW in Portland's Cascade Station. As a movie script writer, she says she stays fresh and "renews the spirit" by redecorating for the seasons. She has periodic yard sales to discard the old and avoid clutter.

I count myself among the new crowd having lived in many big cities yet loving the open spaces of Southwest Washington. Social shopping also keeps me fresh. Both cities and small towns are places to explore, providing they are clean, attractive and easy to navigate.

As a careful shopper and community-minded person, I shop locally and appreciate the hard work, and creativity of the merchants and their employees near my home. It simply makes sense to spend my dollars in or near the towns where I live. For every 84 cents of tax a merchant collects on my $10 purchase, 19 cents will come back to the city where I shop. My small tax contribution goes back into the community that I call home.

My favorite store is Washougal Hardware, near my own home. It is locally owned, and the employees are local people. They know my name and my dog's name and call me when the plant I wanted comes in. I get free popcorn there, see customers who are also friends and neighbors and can walk to the post office, the Pendleton store and within minutes stroll along the Columbia River. Washougal has grown tremendously in the last 10 years. Over half of the population is new to the area. Its downtown has benches, flower basket and trees. As a community it has a bright future.

I stock my pantry by shopping at Costco because it is a Washington-based company. I am loyal as a customer for humanitarian reasons as well because they respect their employees by giving them a decent wage and benefits. Most important, Costco's profits stay within our state. That too is community.

Community feel

For now, Camas still has the best community feeling for me with its tall tree-lined downtown street. The compact downtown gives a feeling of permanence associated with tradition and home. A walk from the historic Carnegie library building to the well-stocked hardware store, boutique shops and restaurants is an invitation to explore. The street signs and lamp posts are ornate, and hanging baskets are abundant with color showing care and good taste. Window boxes filled with red geraniums, and clusters of benches everywhere under large shade trees that hug the space beneath.

The scene is inviting and makes for a happy heart.

Erickson, the Camas-Washougal chamber executive director, describes downtown Camas as having a Norman Rockwell feeling. Carrie Schulstad, the executive director of the Camas Downtown Association, works hard to create a sense of community to all who visit. She credits the collaborative effort of the merchants, citizen volunteers, the city and numerous associations. The paper mill that was the foundational base for Camas as a city still dominates the skyline and the west end of downtown. Yet, modern filters and scrubbers have removed the unpleasant odor which in the past was a deterrent to visiting.

Larger cities can learn from places such as Camas by creating smaller neighborhood clusters of shops with trees and planters that frame the surroundings, and benches to offer rest and social time to people of all ages. Even business districts like those along 164th and 192nd avenues can take small steps to create community through design elements including trees and benches and events like festivals and parking lot sales.

The community spirit that already exists in east Vancouver, and other places in Clark County, is nurtured by such physical amenities that are inviting to local residents and visitors alike. Not all communities look the same, and neither do their shopping districts. But all benefit, economically and socially, when they become places that you want to visit.