WASHOUGAL — Wes Hickey is quick to quote a proverb when talking about downtown Washougal.
“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in,” he said.
The local developer is taking the long view on downtown as it moves from what it could be to what it needs to be. And he’s not alone.
“We’re working at creating the foundation here so there’s something to build off going into the future,” said Hickey, the principal of Lone Wolf Investments. “It’s going to take a while to work up to there. But as more business comes in, it creates an energy and critical mass that people are drawn to. And slowly but surely we’re getting there.”
Hickey’s properties — including the Town Square and Incubator buildings — are a major footprint in the center of Washougal, and they’re nearly at capacity. What comes next is getting foot traffic and new partnerships.
“We’re a bedroom community to some, and we’re trying to introduce them to an emerging downtown,” said Rene Carroll with the Downtown Washougal Association. “It’s one of the best-kept secrets, even among people in Washougal.”
A year after officially forming, the association is still in its early stages.
“We’re still trying to figure out, what does our community want?” said association board president Courtney Wilkinson. “We know the discretionary income is there; we know the young families are there. We’re trying to connect to the community and the business owners.”
She said the group hopes to start collecting dues from businesses to become a bigger presence, but first they’re going to prove what it can do.
Wilkinson and Carroll recently spent a sunny afternoon indoors poring over Small Business Saturday swag to give to downtown shops to promote one of the busiest shopping days of the year.
Door mats, bags and pennants adorned with the #ShopSmall hash tag covered the floor of Wilkinson’s office at Country Financial, each pile topped with a sticky note marking a destination — Amnesia, Lulu’s, 3rd Heart.
Where there are successful downtowns, there are successful downtown associations, Carroll said.
“If you went back 10 years and look at Camas, it’s not what it is today,” she said. “But they have emerged. We’re a few steps behind them.”
Not to say there’s a competition. Carroll, a Papermaker by birth, said the two cities work together to benefit everyone in east Clark County and beyond. But Washougal’s downtown needs to set itself apart.
“It comes down to finding that brand and finding that identity,” Carroll said.
City officials say they are supporting the association however they can, though it will need to lead its own charge.
“Looking back in 30 years, they’ll see this as a pivotal time,” City Administrator David Scott said. “What we can do is set the fertile ground … for private developers.”
That means planning for the kind of growth Washougal wants and promoting the town in new ways.
“Between us, the port and Camas, we’re trying to blow our own horns more than we ever have before and bring around our own destinies,” Washougal Mayor Sean Guard said.
Pendleton and Lone Wolf own much of the land and buildings downtown, Guard said, and he’s thankful they are forward-thinking with their properties.
Hickey said a new Main Street development might kick off in March, bringing nine housing units atop 2,000 square feet of retail space to a vacant lot.
That could help downtown reach what he called the 10/10/10 goal — 10 unique places to eat and drink, 10 different retailers and 10 places open past 6 p.m.
“In some extent, you see that in Vancouver, where they’ve struggled to develop consistently block by block,” he said.
But in Washougal, city boosters believe the stage is set for success.
“There’s a real opportunity for Washougal to become a true gem of a community within the metropolitan area,” Hickey said. “It’s going to come down to land-use planning and creating a true sense of place on this side of the river.”