ASTORIA — In the late 1980s, gutsy downtown property owners began renovating their buildings. There was no reason to do so, other than eternal optimism. Hundreds of Astorians lost their jobs earlier that decade when the Bumble Bee Cannery shuttered its doors. The Astoria Plywood Mill was teetering. The nation was in a recession.
Nevertheless, these business people were following standards established by the National Main Street program, as promoted through what was then called the Astoria Downtown Development Association (ADDA). During the next 30 years, downtown Astoria would ride a series of revitalization waves.
A clear strategy
The Main Street approach includes four points for downtown economic revitalization: organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring. The underlying concept is historic preservation can promote economic development, and vice versa. Distinctive historic architecture can provide a marketing tool for an authentic experience or “destination shopping.”
“Astoria has beautiful scenery, is located on the Columbia River and has an intact 1924 downtown,” said Sarah Lu Heath, executive director for Astoria Downtown Historic District Association (formerly the ADDA). “It’s an attraction just like medieval cities are in Europe.” Heath, however, was quick to add, “It’s not all about tourism. It’s assuring a quality of life for Astorians.”
Heath says renovated historic buildings have greater occupancy rate than “Class A” spaces. Many tenants like the atmosphere and are sometimes inspired by it.
Others see a direct relationship between their building and their business. It’s difficult to attract customers if the building looks uncared for. A dilapidated storefront, in the minds of many, equals a second or third-rate business. By contrast, a renovated historic building may imply stability and higher intrinsic value.
In 1997, the City of Astoria, with the encouragement of the downtown association, established a National Register Historic District in the commercial core. The district provided more than protection for the buildings, it created the opportunity for tax incentives and grants for renovation.
Then in 2000, Liberty Restoration, Inc. began the multi-year restoration of the Liberty Theater. This investment, combined with the restoration of the adjacent Hotel Elliott, was like a juggernaut. “The large investment between these two projects made it safe to invest in Astoria again,” said Chester Trabucco, the Elliott’s developer. “Banks were willing to take a risk on downtown.” Outside investors, he claimed, would not invest in Astoria until they saw a commitment from locals.
Within a few years, local developer Paul Caruana would partner with outside investors Brian Faherty and Lance Marrs. The three men would take on the Commodore Hotel. Later, Caruana and Faherty would purchase and renovate the Norblad Hotel, Shark Rock Building and Hotel Astoria.
Along the way, Tonquin Resources, Ltd., a group of river pilots, tackled the Callender Navigation Co. buildings. They showed Astoria’s nearly century old waterfront structures could be converted to office and retail. (In 1977, George Brugh and Darrell Davis did the same with Pier 11, but Astoria needed to see again that its waterfront stock was still relevant.)
So, too, Jack Harris and Chris Nemlowill purchased the Fort George Building, a former car service garage, and revitalized it as a bakery and brewery. The building’s industrial nature was celebrated in the renovation. And perhaps more significantly, it brought dozens of new jobs to the downtown.
Economic collapse averted
During the Great Recession of 2008, Astoria’s downtown had a good economic foundation. When Astoria’s city manager, Brett Estes, visited other Oregon cities he said, “The recession in other communities was more evident, by large gaps, when compared to Astoria.” Estes said although people here were “nervous” at the time, “things were happening that kept the town going.” He said that energy “gave some people hope.”
Estes also believes the downtown survived because of a mixture of retail, offices and quasi-industrial businesses within the district. “We were able to keep it vibrant because people work here — it’s a hub — people are here throughout the day.”
Renovation by the numbers
The last five years produced one more wave of renovation. A quick survey produced the following numbers: Nine buildings were painted, 11 more were completely renovated, 10 others are in the process of being renovated, one more is being expanded and two major renovations are planned for the near future. Nearly every block saw improvement.
“There’s a triple benefit to the preservation of commercial buildings,” said Heath. “There are construction jobs during the restoration; new business spaces are created; and property values improve for both the buildings and its neighbors.”
“Part of our ethos is redevelopment,” said Estes. “We don’t have greenfields to build on. We find ways to re-use our existing building stock and keep people and businesses in our area and city.”
For more information about renovating an old home or commercial building, visit the Lower Columbia Preservation Society website at lcpsociety.com.