Astorians are naturally anxious about vacancies in downtown retail spaces. In a letter on this page, one writer recently suggested that he’s never seen so many vacancies.
While there are a number of vacant storefronts, it is worth looking back a few decades to recognize how much healthier Astoria’s downtown has become.
Thirty years ago the town’s persona was much bleaker. The Astoria Plywood Mill (on the site of today’s Mill Pond) was in its death throes. The Liberty Theatre was a dead zone, with an owner not interested in reversing its atrophy. There was no Astoria Riverwalk. In the middle of town, across the street from Columbia Memorial Hospital, was the county fairgrounds — an outmoded facility that needed to be in a different, more spacious setting.
Among planning professionals there is strong consensus that the best thing a town can do to attract businesses is to build and improve infrastructure. In other words, the quality of a town’s schools matter as much or more as business recruitment. When the city of Astoria took the first steps in 1989 to create a pedestrian walk along the waterfront, few realized the enormous asset it would become — stretching from the Port of Astoria to Uppertown. Ditto for the Trolley.
In a similar vein, state Sen. Betsy Johnson has said that restoration of the Liberty Theatre was the spark plug that changed downtown’s prospects. And subsequently the Hotel Elliot, a notorious fleabag, was resurrected. A slew of restorations followed, with the latest being the two sides of the 900 block of Commercial Street once owned by the Flavel family.
All of this has made Astoria magnetic to visitors. And some of those visitors have decided to move here. The town’s demographic has changed noticeably.
Downtown’s vacancies will be filled by the new generation of entrepreneurs, as has always been the case. The empty J.C. Penney location already has generated new activity — a winery and a restaurant.
There is a role that all of us can play in this dynamic. If we value Astoria’s downtown and want to keep it vital, patronize the businesses that are there. And when a new storefront opens, pay it a visit.