Una Wirkebau-Hartt has been the director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce for less than a month, and for 10 days of that she was in Turkey.
But already, she said, she’s learned some of Monroe’s biggest goals and she thinks she can help with even the most difficult of them, such as revitalizing the town’s flagging downtown business district.
Friday, she took a break from reorganizing and beautifying the Chamber of Commerce offices to talk about her hopes and visions for Monroe, and how she thinks she can help.
The first thing she wants to do, she said, is listen. So she’s setting up a weekly session for people to talk to her about what matters to them.
“Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., I’m having ‘Chamber Chat’ for folks to come in, members or not, and just ask questions,” she said. “I may not know the answers, but it will be a great way to start the conversations, so people can say, ‘I’m frustrated with the train,’ or to talk about whatever positive things there are.”
Right now, people in Monroe have a powerful opportunity to affect the direction the town takes in coming years, Wirkebau-Hartt noted. And that is also true for organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce.
That is because the city this year is doing a once-in-a-decade update to its Comprehensive Plan, and is looking for input.
“Coming in during this whole planning stage is really exciting,” said Wirkebau-Hartt. “The community is now in the midst of being involved with what will happen in the next several years and how we will handle the next 2,100 families that people think will come in in the next years.”
Community meetings on the planning document’s individual elements, such as parks and transportation, are helping Wirkebau-Hartt learn what Monroe people care about most.
“The number one thing people are most interested in is the restoration of the downtown core,” she said. “People want someplace to shop, to sit and have a cup of coffee, that has farmers’ markets and that is connected to the river without the separation there is now.”
It’s not beyond reach, she said. Already the city has a plan in place for it, called the Downtown Subarea Plan.
“The number one thing is financing,” said Wirkebau-Hartt, whose tourism and community development experience includes developing a hot air balloon festival for a Colorado town, as well as tourism work in Fairbanks, Alaska and rural Australia. “There is still some grant money out there, but applying for grants is a huge amount of work. In Colorado, we hired someone just to write grants and he paid for himself and helped turn that city around.”
The Main Street Program, a government tourism development program of which Monroe was once a part, has lost a lot of funding and is no longer really worth the effort, she added.
“Unfortunately, our community is not in a place to go down that road,” she said. “The money that is out there is not worth the energy to get it anymore.”
Grants are one way to get funding for building owners for block improvements.
There might be other ways to get the downtown improved.
“The downtown has lots of potential, and empty buildings are not necessarily a bad thing, but unfortunately for Monroe we have a lot of them,” said Wirkebau-Hartt. “You won’t get them filled with graffiti and old pamphlets hanging up and with the area dirty, so Shelly (Nyhammer, Wirkebau-Hartt’s assistant) and I are going to reach out to all the building owners in the downtown core, including the many who don’t live here, and see how we can start filling those spaces.”
And she plans to start a beautification task force right away, too, she said, identifying it as a low-cost way to quickly improve the downtown core.
“I want to come together monthly to pick up the garbage and take the shopping carts back, and take the seediness out of the six block area,” she said. “Our downtown is a small area. You got three shopping carts in two blocks, people drive through and think, ‘this is scary.’ To keep things neat and tidy is cost-free.”
As much as the downtown is imperative, the rest of the business community has important needs, too, said Wirkebau-Hartt.
And one thing the city is doing could be very helpful, she went on.
The city is reaching out to the nearly 200 local businesses that do manufacturing, whether in a giant warehouse or in a small garage.
“The first step is finding out what our manufacturers need,” she said. Learning what the community college can do to ensure a trained workforce is one way to help, and the Chamber of Commerce may have ways to support manufacturing, too.
And in order to support tourism, the town will need more hotels, she added.
“We need both higher-end ones and mom-and-pop ones,” said Wirkebau-Hartt. “It’s sad; many people who come in the summer have to stay in Bothell or Kirkland because we don’t have the room. Having a convention center and hotel on Lake Tye would be amazing, especially for the manufacturers. We don’t have any place for them to stay.”
As she continues to meet with Monroe residents and business owners, more ideas and strategies will become clear, she said. And she’s lived and worked and seen successful tactics employed all around the world, and can bring that experience to bear for Monroe.
But Friday, she wanted to be sure that the Monroe Chamber of Commerce, in the home it rents at the Masonic Lodge building, was pulling its weight in the beautification of the downtown. She was able to work out a trade for membership with Monroe landscape and nursery Falling Water Gardens for lots of flowers and plants, and with Nyhammer and volunteers, she got to work sprucing up the front yard.
“My number thing is that I want this community to recognize that things are happening behind the scenes,” she said. “But I’m also hoping that there will be immediate changes. For instance, our work party, and the plants coming in, and beautifying this building. Hopefully it will help start a whole domino effect.”