Published in HIpFiSH Monthly, December 2012.
If you ask Astoria Downtown Historic District Association President Dulcye Taylor, something big is definitely afoot in downtown.
“There’s a vibe lurking around Astoria,” Taylor said. “If you talk to people who’ve been here a long time, they’ll say it feels different.”
Before she relocated in 2006 and purchased a downtown business of her own – the Old Town Framing Company – Taylor thought of Astoria as a just-passing-through kind of place. “I drove through Astoria for 20 years without stopping, except to get a cup of coffee on my way out of town,” she recalled.
She wasn’t the only one. After two hard-knock economic decades, downtown Astoria was looking rather shabby, with vacant storefronts, peeling paint and seedy bars dotting the urban landscape.
Taylor, like many other would-be visitors, shoppers and business owners, stayed away.
Today, she can’t imagine living anywhere else, and things in the city center are different indeed: historic renovations are under way, verdant planters blossom along the sidewalks, new small businesses are hanging shingles and the tourists are arriving in droves.
This newfound vibrancy is no stroke of luck. It’s the result of several years of concentrated efforts by ADHDA, the City of Astoria and other local entities to revitalize a down-on-its-luck urban center.
The ADHDA was originally formed in 1985 to promote and preserve downtown Astoria, but the organization has waxed and waned since its inception. When Taylor arrived on the scene, she recalls, meetings were attended by perhaps a dozen people. She joined the board in 2009, and soon became president. When Taylor took the helm, the association had just $87 in the bank, she says, but it also had a new and enthusiastic board ready to get to work.
Today she’s president of a thriving association with a laundry list of recent successes under its belt, from downtown cleanup days to a host of popular local events, including the Second Saturday Art Walk, the Jane Barnes Revue, and the Pacific Northwest Brew Cup.
The new ADHDA has a hand in everything from preservation to promotions, from trash cleanup to small-business advocacy. It also functions as a mouthpiece for the local business community, enabling those with a stake in downtown to better communicate and collaborate with the City of Astoria, according to City Manager Paul Benoit.
“As we work on initiatives that affect downtown we do it with and through them,” he said. “We really use association as a touchstone for vetting or reviewing any proposals we may have.”
City employees including Community Development Director/Assistant City Manager Brett Estes sit on ADHDA committees to ensure the communication flows both ways.
The result? Local initiatives such as last spring’s streetscape improvement plan, which added benches, bike racks, bus shelters, planters and “Salmon Can” trash receptacles to the downtown area.
Downtown merchants wanted to spruce things up, Estes says, so the city, the Astoria Sunday Market and ADHDA worked together to apply for an Oregon Department of Transportation Grant to fund the endeavor. ADHDA has even coordinated sponsors to maintain the new landscaping.
“That’s something we wouldn’t have had the capacity to take on, but through this partnership, we were able to get greater things accomplished,” Estes said.
ADHDA is additionally guiding Astoria through its participation in the Oregon Main Street Program, a state-sponsored effort to revitalize historic commercial districts across Oregon.
An effort to synthesize all these undertakings into a larger, more cohesive vision is also gaining steam.
Under the guidance of Urban Strategist and Principal Michele Reeves, the ADHDA has embarked on a multi-month downtown assessment and identity program called Building Blocks for a Successful Downtown.
The process aims to provide a blueprint for revitalization informed by input from a broad swathe of the community, says Reeves, who likes what she’s seeing so far.
“Revitalization comes from people and people’s passions and where they direct their energy and efforts and resources,” she said. “One thing I judge when I go into a community is how much excitement there is … What’s exciting in Astoria is people get mad if they’re not included in conversation. You have a lot of people who want to be engaged.”
Reeves will work closely with Oregon Main Street Coordinator Sheri Stuart to guide Astoria through the Building Blocks program. Together, they’ll gather and synthesize plenty of stakeholder input, and they’ll teach local entrepreneurs how to market and promote their businesses based on a shared vision for Astoria’s future.
It’s an exciting time to live and work in Astoria, says Astoria native and ADHDA Business Development Committee Chair Susan Trabucco.
When she was a kid, downtown Astoria was the region’s shopping hub, with all sorts of shoe stores, hardware stores and dress shops.
“It wasn’t glitzy,” she recalled. “It was catering to a crowd of people who were loggers, fishermen and everyday folk … But there were a lot of living-wage jobs.”
After high school, Trabucco moved away, and when she returned in 1992 to raise a family of her own, downtown was on the definite decline.
The shoppers had retreated to Warrenton, where big-box stores were sprouting up like weeds. There were no tourists. And many local businesses had shut their doors.
Gimre’s Shoes co-owner Peter Gimre, a former ADHDA president who recently rejoined the board, has had a front-row seat for all the ups and downs.
His shoe store, in its third generation of family ownership, has been a mainstay in downtown Astoria through the decades. He’s excited about the new energy in town, and the new visitors it’s drawing.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, downtown was more or less like a shopping center where you could buy everything you needed,” he said. “It’s more individualized now … there are more coffee shops and more art shops, which drives people to downtown.”
A thriving city center creates a rising tide that helps businesses stay afloat for the long haul, according to Gimre, but revitalization requires patience.
“I think downtown is really on a resurgence,” he said. “But nothing happens overnight.”
In a sense, Astoria is returning to its roots as a polestar for transplants of all stripes, says long-time resident Susie McLerie.
In the ‘70s, McLerie was one of a number of artistic types who relocated to Astoria. They were potters, tailors, weavers and painters, and they lived off of the land and relied on each other for everything else as they worked to build an artistic community. They were eventually welcomed into the local fold, and many of them are still here, and still creating art.
Back in the ‘70s, Astoria wasn’t much to look at, McLerie recalled: “The downtown was pretty depressing and slow,” she said. “You didn’t really need town for much. You’d go for groceries to the Safeway or Hauke’s Market.”
Today, Astoria is drawing trailblazers of a new breed.
Baked Alaska restaurant owners Chris and Jennifer Holen see Astoria as a burgeoning foodie hub with an impressive array of dining experiences for a town its size.
Nurturing the growth of the larger downtown as lovingly as you nurture your own small business is something of a no-brainer, says Jennifer Holen: “People off the cruise ships always say to us, ‘You’re all so friendly!’ Well, we’re all so invested.”
There’s a lot to like about Astoria if you’re a small-business owner, says Taylor. Affordable rental and real estate makes it easier get a foot in the door, while a minimal corporate presence ensures visitors a novel, can’t-get-it-anywhere-else shopping and dining experience.
It’s an irresistible formula, agrees Patsy Oser, who recently relocated to Astoria from the suburbs of Chicago with her husband, David. They came for David Oser’s job, but Patsy Oser has quickly found her own niche.
She’s working as a volunteer librarian at Astor Elementary, she’s joined several boards, and she sits on the ADHDA’s Promotions Committee.
Awhile back, The Osers took a boat out onto the river with a visiting friend, and Patsy Oser was struck by the view of Astoria from out on the water.
“It looks like a storybook village,” she said. “It’s charming. It’d be nice to have that when you’re walking around, too. For Astoria to be as charming as the people who live here.”
The modern iteration of the ADHDA is capitalizing on just that asset – people power.
It boasts a board of nine business owners and workers, four active committees and two-dozen regular volunteers.
Last year, 85 of Astoria’s 225 businesses were members, Taylor says, and 40-plus citizens regularly attend meetings.
What might the final blueprint for Astoria’s future look like?
Attractive, walkable streets, enticing storefronts, ongoing historic restorations and the elimination of vacant lots are all part of the equation.
In January 2013, Reeves will take community members on a tour of another downtown tackling similar challenges. An identity-building and marketing workshop is set for February, and a public forum will follow in early spring.
In the meantime, there are shoes to sell, photos to frame, crabs to shell and an entire community to mobilize.
Taylor is also out to pique the interest of those who might just be passing through, like she once was.
“If downtown thrives, everybody thrives,” she said. “If you don’t have a downtown that people want to come to, they’ll come, get a cup of coffee and a scone, and they’ll leave.”
And as locals and newcomers alike continue to invest in Astoria, says Benoit, thrive it will.
“I can’t put my finger on it but there’s an optimism and a cooperative spirit between downtown businesses that’s keeping things move forward,” he said.
Gimre hopes the new momentum will carry downtown Astoria far into the future. “There seems to be this energy going,” he said. “I feel we’re in the second or third inning of a nine-inning game, and it’s just going to get better and better as time goes on.”
Patsy and David Oser are embarking on their very own historic restoration – they’re rehabbing an old house with river views. And they’re even trying to entice a few friends to join them in their new community, which has quickly come to feel like home.
McLerie is thrilled to see a fresh wave of transplants, tourists and entrepreneurs arriving, drawn as she was by the area’s natural beauty and its emphasis on history, preservation and tradition.
“This is home,” she said. “This is the place … One old-timer said to me when I first moved here: ‘It rains a lot here, but you grown good roots.’ I never forgot that. You can grow good roots here.”
-Erin J. Bernard