By Polly Keary, Editor
Editor’s Note: This story is the last of a series on the state of the downtown business district. The first week, we looked at the reasons so many stores have closed or moved away. Last week, we met the groups who have the power to improve the downtown, and learned what each group can and cannot do.
This week we 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.
This week, another business is closing on Main Street, as Modern Mercantile, a clothing and accessory shop next door to the 7-11, sells off its remaining stock at a 50 percent discount.
However, it is not a lack of success that is causing that closure but rather, too much success. The store is the retail outlet for a Monroe-based wholesaler, and that company is booming so much they are choosing to focus on that side of the business, using the Main Street store for office and storage space.
That is perhaps a good analogy for what is happening on Main Street overall. Although the scene looks bleak, with many vacant storefronts, behind the scenes there are encouraging things happening.
And those things could spell a future for the district in which businesses thrive and visitors linger, in which events draw tourists and residents alike to the downtown, in which new streets and even homes come to a vital historic district, and from which the entire city could benefit.
Of all the organizations at work to revitalize Main Street, DREAM is the one most closely focused on the task.
The Downtown Revitalization and Enhancement Association of Monroe exists for the sole purpose of administrating the Main Street Program, a federally-funded program that has led to many successful revitalization efforts around the state and the country.
The Monroe organization has struggled since its creation, operating with few funds, a board that sometimes fell short of members, and frequent leadership changes.
But today, DREAM has a new president in the person of Paula Fortier, owner of Main Clothing Company, and a board of directors with several new and enthusiastic members who own successful businesses.
Those people, along with DREAM Director Lynn Gose, are putting renewed energy into the Main Street Program this year, and are also putting together new and expanded events beginning this spring.
But perhaps the most immediately powerful tool they have put in place is a new website at www.monroedream.org, which went live last week.
Successful town revitalizations often make considerable use of grant money for storefront facelifts, streetscape improvements and signage, among other things. But in the current economy, grants are few and far between.
But thanks to a tax law, DREAM could wind up with $133,000 a year to use for the Main Street project for such things as promotion of the downtown, grants to business and property owners and district improvements.
However, businesses in town have to know about the program and choose to participate. Any business that donates money to DREAM in 2013 can not only get a federal income tax deduction for it, but can get a tax credit of 75 percent of the donated amount off next year’s B&O taxes.
Monroe’s DREAM organization is one of the few Main Street Programs in the state to have reached the second tier of the program, which makes it eligible for the B&O tax program. But last year, the organization got a tiny fraction of what it could collect. That’s because there are a lot of businesses that don’t know about it, DREAM members believe.
So clear instructions on how to get involved are included on the website, and at Main Clothing Company last week, Fortier had a stack of brand new brochures about the program ready to go out to business owners.
Soon, prospective business owners will be able to get another valuable piece of information at the website.
DREAM is compiling a database of all the vacant properties on Main, and will soon post the information.
“You could go on there and see how much square footage there is, what the rents are, and who to contact,” said Fortier, who said DREAM is also working out ways to identify and recruit the kinds of businesses the downtown needs, aided in part by a long list of residents’ suggestions gathered via Facebook.
The group has also arranged for two large new downtown events this year; a farmers’ market and a Father’s Day concert and festival.
The new farmers’ market will occupy a block and a half of Fremont Street behind Main Clothing Company, as well as a bit of S. Blakeley Street. The market opens May 21 and will be weekly through Sept. 10. Already vendors are turning in applications, Fortier said.
And Monroe is soon to be unique among Washington towns in holding a Father’s Day festival in conjunction with the Monroe Public Schools Foundation, which will hold a downtown car show that day.
“It’s going to be a huge car show, because we are inviting all genres of cars and not excluding any groups,” said Fortier. “And we are going to have a beer and wine garden and local bands, and a pin-up girl contest, like vintage ’20s pinup girls, and a dunk tank and a grilling contest. It’s geared to men but family-oriented. I’m excited. There is a lot of community excitement.”
There could be other events in the works, Fortier added.
“I just found out the Chamber of Commerce is not going to do the wine walks, but if the community is interested in still having them, we could do them,” Fortier said. “They have been successful before and I don’t see why they wouldn’t be again.”
She said community feedback through the website would help DREAM gauge interest.
And, she said, DREAM is discussing pursuing a community art gallery for the downtown.
What DREAM needs now is enthusiastic citizen support, said Fortier, whether that means participating in the B&O tax program, sitting on the board of directors, or volunteering at events.
“The more brainpower we have, the better off we’ll be,” she said. “It comes down to volunteers and people getting involved in the community.”
The city invests
Fremont Street is important in the Downtown Sub-Area Plan, which outlines steps and goals for achieving the vision set forth by the Main Street program. Part of district improvement includes adding housing near the business district, which increases traffic to the businesses. It also, if designed according to the guidelines, improves and modernizes the appearance of the whole area.
Fremont Street runs from Main Street all the way to Al Borlin Park, and is a prime location for new housing of that description, as well as for new commercial uses. But right now, the street runs through some industrial areas and is narrow, with aging, unattractive sidewalks.
The city has to repair the sewer and storm system under the street, which will involve tearing the sidewalks out.
The city could have opted to replace the walks with something temporary, waiting to do further upgrades until revenue was stronger.
But instead, the city decided to go ahead and do the full revitalization of the street, in accordance with the Downtown Master Plan.
“I think council really believes in the downtown, and this is our first opportunity to do a large project that is expressing the downtown plan,” said city economic development manager Jeff Sax.
It’s not a certainty yet; the city has to buy a fair amount of land from property owners in order to widen the sidewalks and there is some concern about the fate of a giant tree that rests on edge of the Monroe School District Administration Building. But provided that all goes well, the city could start advertising for contractors this spring.
The city is seriously talking about buying a piece of land for parking that could double as event space, too.
Currently there’s no budget for that, but that will soon change. Once Walmart’s developer buys the land from the city, which should take place upon resolution of a current lawsuit appeal that will likely be concluded in the next few weeks, the city will have some cash to use for projects.
“Go down Santa Cruz Avenue in Los Gatos (Calif.); they have a town square, which is a nice grassy area where they hold different events and put tents up in the summer and do different kinds of music,” said Monroe Mayor Robert Zimmerman, who recently spent time on the phone with the Los Gatos’ city manager, discussing economic development. “That’s really what I see for Monroe.”
Another idea the city is beginning to discuss could be a game-changer.
City Hall has been in need of improvements for years, and has become quite cramped as the city has grown.
Everett Community College late last year announced plans to locate a branch campus in Monroe within five years. And the Monroe School District Administration Building is very old.
So Sax recently approached Rob Prosch, the director of the Monroe campus of the community college.
“I said, ‘What would you think about co-locating with the community college, where we build a new city hall and share the facility with the community college and the school district?’” said Sax, who thinks lease income from the other two entities could help the city pay for a new city hall.
“If we all work together, the school district could surplus its administration building, which would be a catalyst property for the Al Borlin neighborhood. It would be a great community project,” he said.
Chamber ready to help
In the Monroe Chamber of Commerce’s upstairs office on Main Street, director Annique Bennett Friday thumbed through her dog-eared copy of a book called “The 25 Immutable Rules of Successful Tourism.”
The chamber is concerned with the city as a whole, not just the downtown, Bennett said. But a vital and attractive downtown is an asset to the entire city, and as such, she is very interested in the fortunes of Main Street.
Among the rules of successful tourism set forth in the book, which was in fact co-authored by Roger Brooks, the same consultant whose firm in 2007 provided the city with an in-depth analysis of the spending habits of all its inhabitants and assessment of what kind of stores the downtown needs, is that signage directing visitors to amenities is a must.
So Bennett hopes to encourage way-finding signs in the downtown.
“We are going to be working with the city on the way-finding program, however we can assist with that,” she said. And as more and more of the world uses electronic media to plan trips, the chamber is building a website that will include the locations of all the businesses in Monroe, including those downtown, which will further helps guide visitors around.
Also, restrooms are one of the best ways to draw visitors into an area, the book says, and Bennett says the Chamber of Commerce is ready to assist with any efforts to locate a public restroom and/or festival lot in the district.
And while the chamber is stepping away from organizing small downtown events such as wine walks, it will pour new energy into the two big events it does organize; the holiday event Light Up Monroe and the Fair Days Parade.
“They are important events, ones to develop and cherish,” Bennett said. “We want to put a lot of time into those events.” Currently the chamber is exploring the possibility of locating a living tree downtown for the annual lighting that would beautify the district year-round.
If all of the groups and people who are interested in the downtown can get excited about making it an attractive and successful place, the benefit will be great for all of Monroe, Bennett said.
“The number one activity worldwide is walking and shopping in a pedestrian-friendly setting,” she said. “That’s why the downtown should always be that unique experience, that unique district.”
There are many reasons to believe that Monroe’s Main Street, while struggling, has more opportunity than at any time in recent history.
The Chamber of Commerce, DREAM and the City of Monroe are actively working together to improve it. There is new, enthusiastic leadership on the boards of directors of both DREAM and the Chamber of Commerce. The city is willing to invest, and to make civic plans in such a way that the downtown benefits. New funds are becoming available through the B&O tax program, and others may come through city land sales.
It will also take the excitement of merchants and citizens throughout the city if the downtown is to grow into its potential, according to Brooks.
The introductory pages of his book contain a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that summarizes the core principle of a successful town:
“Nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm.”
A 2006 study could still contain answers for downtown
In 2006, the City of Monroe paid $30,000 to consulting firm Destination Development for, among other things, an assessment of what Monroe needed to do to attract visitors.
That year, secret shoppers visited the town, accessed its visitor information and looked through the shops, commenting on what they saw.
And the firm did an extremely thorough analysis of the spending patterns of literally every single household in the town, relying largely on credit card information.
The consultants then presented their findings, and their recommendations, to the city.
While the economy has changed and some businesses present then are gone, the essential elements analyzed by the city are largely the same.
Now city leaders, including the Monroe Chamber of Commerce and the City of Monroe, are taking a second look at the study with an eye to bringing some of those key recommendations about.
Destination Development’s key points and recommendations were: