By Polly Keary, Editor
Editor’s Note: This story is the second of a series on the state of the downtown business district. Last week, we looked at the reasons so many stores have closed or moved away. This week we meet the groups who have the power to improve the downtown, and learn what each group can and cannot do.
Next week we’ll look at what plans are underway right now that could turn the downtown back around, and revisit a study that has been sitting on city shelves for seven years that could contain the answers for success.
The city should invest in the downtown. Or the business owners should clean the place up. Or the people of the city should shop the downtown instead of going to major box stores.
Those are just a few of the suggestions that readers made on last week’s story on the empty storefronts along Main Street.
But which of those suggestions are actually realistic? Whose job is it to rescue the business district? And how might they go about it?
The truth appears to be that all those groups and others as well have a role to play in the revitalization of the downtown, and there are clear paths forward for all of them to take to turn the flagging district around. But it’s going to take a lot of energy and buy-in from not only the downtown district, but the entire city, to make it happen.
DREAM and the Main Street Program
In 1984, one-third of all the storefronts on Walla Walla’s Main Street were empty. Shopping malls on the town’s outskirts had drawn two large anchor stores out of the downtown, and smaller stores followed. Most of the buildings hadn’t been remodeled in decades, leaving the district dilapidated, outdated and unattractive.
Eighteen years later, Sunset Magazine named Walla Walla’s Main Street the best Main Street in the West. Today, downtown business vacancies hover at around four percent.
The method by which Walla Walla’s downtown went from a drab, rundown district to one of the best downtowns in America is called The Main Street Approach. It’s a government-funded program, but the government doesn’t do any of the work. Rather, the government helps towns do the work themselves through some financial strategies and a proven step-by-step guide.
“It’s been here in Washington for 27 years, and it’s being used in over 2,000 communities around the country,” said Sarah Hansen, coordinator of the Washington Main Street Program. “We are seeing a lot of success in towns of 500 all the way to cities like Boston which has 19 different Main Street districts. The program provides a great structure you can adapt to what you have.”
Using the Main Street Approach, cities work on four things: economic restructuring, design, organization of people, and promotion of the downtown. They emphasize public/private partnerships, work on changing community attitudes and focus on improving existing assets.
Among the towns that have used the program successfully in Washington are Walla Walla, Port Townsend and Gig Harbor.
What it takes
The Main Street Approach is a currently a three-tier process and Monroe has gotten to the second tier. The first step is to apply, which makes the city an “affiliate community,” and gives the city access to consultations and a visit from a trained mentor.
The second tier makes the city a Tax Credit Incentive Program Community. That gives towns the ability to collaborate with area businesses to direct up to $133,000 a year to their town’s Main Street Program, and in order to get there, the town has to have a specific organization created to run the Main Street Program.
“You need a 501C3 or 501C6, a group solely devoted to downtown preservation, with a board of directors and four committees each dealing with one of the steps and working on plans, and they need to track their revitalization statistics, the number of new businesses that come in, the number of jobs created, the number of dollars, public and private, that are invested,” said Hansen.
Monroe has that group. That organization is the Downtown Revitalization and Enhancement Association of Monroe, or DREAM.
DREAM’s four-step job is to work on economic restructuring, facilitate a plan to set design standards for the downtown, rally the community to support a revitalization plan, and promote the downtown.
DREAM’s largest success to date was to advocate for a sub-area plan. The city responded to a strong appeal from downtown merchants and paid for a plan outlining design standards for the district. They established goals for street-scapes, identified assets such as Al Borlin Park and historic buildings, and set forth strategies for maximizing on those assets, such as encouraging residential development around Al Borlin Park.
That means the design piece is complete.
But the other three steps have proven more difficult.
What the problems are
DREAM’s most significant problem in recent years has been lack of community buy-in. For years, DREAM was virtually a one-woman show; that of Vickie Mullen, an outspoken and sometimes combative community leader who did most of the work of applying to the state program and agitating for a sub-area plan. For a time Mullen also served as its paid director, but resigned last spring over differences with the city government.
After Mullen quit, DREAM very nearly collapsed for lack of a board of directors. But new Chamber of Commerce Director Annique Bennett and recently-hired Monroe economic development manager Jeff Sax rallied business owners to get a new board of directors to volunteer.
Under the new leadership of President Paula Fortier, who owns Main Clothing Company, DREAM is now working on inventorying the properties on Main and putting together a list of empty properties, along with information on the rent, square footage and amenities, to make it easier for prospective businesses to find a home. Armed with that information, along with a detailed market analysis done for the city in 2006 detailing the spending habits of people within a 15-minute drive time of the downtown, DREAM could recruit businesses that could help draw people to the downtown, such as restaurants, sporting goods shops and boutique stores.
And DREAM is also working on new events to draw people to the downtown. Both projects address the steps of economic restructuring and promotion.
But the most powerful economic benefit available to towns on the second tier of the Main Street Approach remains virtually untapped in Monroe, and that’s getting the money that is available to actually make a real difference in reviving the district.
In towns with a Main Street Program, businesses which pay their taxes electronically can direct some of their B&O taxes to that program. It’s a little bit complicated. How it works is that businesses make a donation to the Main Street Program one year and get a tax credit for 75 percent of that donation the next year.
Business owners can go to the Department of Revenue site where they pay their taxes, and while there select a box that allows them to donate to the downtown.
And this time of year is the best time to do it.
“Say you pledge to donate $1,000,” said Hansen. “If you are donating this year, you have until Dec. 31 to fulfill that pledge. You write a check to DREAM for $1,000. You are still liable for your B&O tax, but in 2014, you will see you have a $750 tax credit.”
DREAM can get up to $133,000 a year that way.
That money could do a lot. Property owners could apply for grants to help them pay for improvements. DREAM could buy new planters, pay for flowers and decorative light posts or signs that direct people around, help new entrepreneurs pay the first couple of months’ rent during the startup phase, or even pitch in on the cost of a public restroom somewhere, an amenity proven to boost tourism.
But, said Sax, DREAM still hasn’t rallied the community enough to make it happen.
“The B&O program is inhibited by the fact that we don’t have leadership that inspires confidence,” said Sax, who added that he helped recruit president Fortier but that the president can’t do it alone. The potential for success exists, though, he said.
“If the DREAM board said, ‘Come help us; we’re going to get on board and work with the Chamber of Commerce and break down the walls that exist,’ then the chamber could go out and say, ‘This is a great organization, we recommend our members direct taxes to the downtown.’” he said. “And with $133,000, you could hire a terrific young director and have $80,000 left for flowers, a newsletter, PR, matching grants, helping struggling business owners. And it only takes one or two of those efforts and things change.”
Certified Local Government and the Historic District
Monroe’s zip code has about 800 buildings that qualify as historic, including most, if not all, of the buildings downtown. And that could make some money available to fix things up. Property owners with property inside the historic district who choose to opt into the program could get a 20 percent tax credit for any money they spend on improvements. There are also grants available for historic districts.
But in order to get those benefits, the city needs a historic district, and a Certified Local Government to run the program.
Monroe almost had one once, and the woman who spearheaded the effort says it wouldn’t take too much to bring the idea back to life.
What it takes
“There are many benefits, including tax benefits, but in order to get them, the buildings have to be on some sort of registry, and it requires a Certified Local Government,” said Teresa Willard of Monroe, who between 2005 and 2008 worked to create a historic district in Monroe.
A Certified Local Government is basically part of an existing city government, usually the planning department, that is certified to oversee a historic district. The CLG sets up an all-volunteer historic preservation commission, surveys local historic properties and enforces state or local preservation laws. The CLG can then apply for state and federal grants, and in towns with a Main Street Program, such as Monroe, those funds can go to support Main Street projects, among other things.
State laws regarding historic preservation are minimal. They apply mostly to governments seeking to build things, and require them to consider the history of buildings and other assets they propose to alter or destroy.
Towns can go further, but the flexibility granted them is enormous, according to Willard.
A city can designate any area within its zip code, up to and including the entire zip code area, a historic district.
Then the commission appointed by the CLG figures out which buildings in the district qualify for historic status. Already, Willard said she identified more than 800 buildings in the zip code constructed prior to 1940. The commission then goes out and contacts the owners of those buildings and sees if they would like to opt in.
Those who opt in are subject to rules established by the CLG and the commission. Those rules can be quite strict, such as limiting the colors a house may be painted or the extent to which its exterior can be altered. Or they can be quite liberal, requiring only that exteriors not be altered in such a way as to make them no longer look historic.
Once a property owner agrees to opt in, that owner can get tax credits for improvements made to the property. All a property owner has to do is bring improvement plans to the commission and get approval, whereupon the owner can get a written certification to present to the IRS at tax time.
“Most people have the same concerns of being told what they can and can’t do with their property, but once they understand that it’s purely voluntary and there’s a tax credit available, they tend to receive it better,” said Willard. “You don’t have to participate even if you are in a historic district, but if you and your neighbor both have 1920s-era houses and he’s getting 20 percent back on what he spends on remodeling and you aren’t, you tend to want to participate.”
What the problems are
“My involvement started in 2005, and in 2007 Beth Stucker (president of the Monroe Historic Society) and I formed the Historic Monroe Charter and wrote a mission statement,” said Willard. “But we haven’t done much with it. We kept getting shut down.”
She and Stucker were able to get representatives from the state to give a presentation to the city council, but there was a problem with scheduling and the presentation ended up being given during the public comment period, which has strict time limits. The city never bought in, and there wasn’t enough passion in the community to fuel the effort, so it died.
But Willard is a native of upstate New York, where she says historic preservation is key to tourism, and she believes it could help Monroe, too.
“People love the history here, of the rivers, the agriculture, the logging. There’s a rich history here,” she said.
She doesn’t think it would be too difficult to get the program up and running, if there is interest, she said.
In fact, this week, she plans to put up a Facebook page dedicated to Historic Monroe, and anyone interested in reviving the historic district project is encouraged to contact her through the page (See next week’s Monitor for more information).
The Chamber of Commerce
The Monroe Chamber of Commerce is tasked with helping promote the interests of all of the businesses in town, not just those of the downtown, but the downtown is key to the health of the whole city, said Director Annique Bennett.
The Chamber of Commerce last week completed a new strategy and plan for supporting Monroe business, and getting visitors to the area is at its core. An attractive downtown can be a major draw, so therefore the Chamber of Commerce has a strong interest in downtown revitalization. And the role of the chamber is clearly outlined in a study done for the city in 2006, said Bennett.
“This assessment, as you know, was commissioned by the city and cost thousands of dollars of precious funds,” she said. “Many cities are not forward-thinking enough to commission this kind of assessment, and that we have this road map – which is more relevant today – is beyond great.”
What it takes
It’s primarily the business community itself that has the responsibility of downtown revitalization, according to the Destination Development Visitor/Tourism Assessment. But there’s a lot the chamber can do.
For instance, the Chamber of Commerce can get that study out to the community, and Bennett is currently working with Adrian Taylor at Ben Franklin to print copies of the hefty document to make available.
Also, as part of the chamber’s new effort to include a sophisticated mapping application on its website to guide visitors around the city, the chamber can direct people to amenities and businesses in the downtown. The goal, according to the consultants, is to provide enough diversion to get people to stay for four hours. Four hours worth of fun activities, whether shopping, attending events or sight-seeing, is proven to be sufficient motivation to get people to make a trip.
What the problems are
Bennett said she remains baffled about the lukewarm reception the study got. She thinks it is because a second project undertaken by the consultants, a project to identify a potential brand for the city in which the consultants recommended a sports identity for Monroe, didn’t appeal to enough people.
“I think many may have unintentionally thrown the baby out with the bathwater on this,” she said, adding that Monroe would be well-served if an organization would step up and seize on the 57 recommendations included in the study, working to implement them.
“I have invested hundreds of hours of my life in these development meetings in other cities,” she said. “These suggestions are not exotic and magical for Monroe. They come from an experienced and professional point of view commissioned to help us, and we asked for them!”
“We are not responsible for the success or failure of any business downtown,” said Monroe Economic Development Manager Jeff Sax. “What the government can do is what we are supposed to do, and that’s public safety, public works, things like parking and sidewalks and street-scapes.”
It might not sound like much, but in fact, with its authority to make laws about how land is used and to improve the city infrastructure, the city has enormous power in certain aspects of revitalizing the downtown.
What it takes
One of the most important things the city has done was create a Downtown Sub-Area Plan that now guides design codes, signage, and building codes for the downtown. It also sets forth goals for infrastructure such as street improvements, along with goals for future development, such as increased residential development at the edge of Al Borlin Park.
Soon the city is going to do some repairs to Fremont Street, the first of the streets identified in the sub-area plan as in need of better sidewalks and attractive trees planted in cutouts, and the city has opted to pay for the full treatment recommended in the plan.
The city also paid for the Destination Development Study that Sax, Bennett at the Chamber of Commerce and others say is still relevant and potentially extremely helpful.
And Sax himself has the recently-created position of working for economic development for the entire city by recruiting businesses and events, and promoting tourism-friendly development such as a watersports park at Lake Tye.
And once the city sells the remaining land at North Kelsey, the mayor has said he’d like to explore the possibility of buying a piece of land for a “festival lot,” a downtown parking area that could also be used for events.
What the problems are
The main challenge the city faces is, of course, money. Sax and Monroe Mayor Robert Zimmerman agree that doing projects like upgrading the sidewalks and improving street-scapes are the best things the city can do, but projects like that are expensive.
“I’ve always supported that approach, to make it beautiful and more accessible, and to create an ambience where people want to meander along the streets in front of all the shops, but our hurdle is the money it takes to be able to do those things,” said Zimmerman.
The other key challenge is that many measures the city could take in the downtown are controversial. The city has the power to make and enforce sign codes, but not everyone agrees on what they should be.
Currently, the city is working on a new sign code but presently isn’t enforcing the one that’s in place in the downtown. Some business owners argue that this allows for a shabby-looking district, as other businesses employ electronic signs, cover much of their windows with paper signs or hang vinyl banners long beyond what the sign code allows.
But the mayor sees it from another angle.
“We had somebody come to our sign enforcement people and say there was an illegal banner sign on a business, and technically it did not fit in the sign code, but we’re talking about one of the worst economies this city and country has seen in years and here’s this business trying to attract people hanging a banner saying, ‘We are open,’” said Zimmerman. “And it wasn’t permanent, so I was not in favor of strictly enforcing that sign code at that time.”
Parking laws also remain perennially controversial. Some people like the two-hour limit, as it keeps tenants and employees from hogging up spaces. But many feel it makes visitors unlikely to stay long. And if the city is to widen sidewalks, that means narrowing the street, which means switching from head-in parking to parallel parking, which will reduce space yet further.
Another kind of ordinance other cities have enacted, which has been very successful, is zoning the downtown so that only restaurants and retail are allowed on the street level, with services and residential allowable on the second story and up. But that limits other kinds of business, something some cities are reluctant to do.
The business and property owners
Ultimately, according to Roger Brooks, whose company authored the visitor and tourism assessment for the city, successful change invariably comes from the business community. It’s that community that must organize to bring about the more than 50 recommendations included in the study, such as beautifying the district, putting in attractive signage, paying for market analyses, recruiting the kinds of business that studies show are lacking, providing public restrooms and doing cooperative advertising and marketing with other parts of the city.
The city can help mainly by providing technical assistance, passing ordinances as needed, and when possible, providing some funding and grants.
One of the main things the business district could do, which was instrumental in Walla Walla, is go to the city and ask the city to create a Limited Improvement District in the downtown, which would allow business and property owners to tax themselves to raise money for improvements.
Zimmerman said he’s open to the idea.
But as always, without excitement and optimism on the part of the people to whom it matters most, the business community, the downtown will continue to falter.
Which would be a shame, said Lana Stevens, who is one of a few property owners who are very engaged in the community. Walla Walla and Port Townsend don’t have anything Monroe hasn’t got, she said. If property owners would plant flowers, paint things, stick to a sign code, and work together, downtown Monroe could be a beautiful place that people would want to travel to visit.
“Look at the University of Washington Arboretum; what a beautiful area. Our Al Borlin Park could be like that,” she said. “We have the river, Woods Creek, parks, and we are less than half an hour to Boeing. Our housing is certainly reasonable getting in closer to the city, and we have lots of other things, too. We have some wonderful old buildings downtown. You could just see people walking around and visiting the shops. It is a lot of hard work, but everybody benefits.”