Business owners in Downtown Astoria have become irked by the growing number of vacancies throughout the downtown region, said Astoria Downtown Historic District Association member Susan Trabucco.

In response, she said, the association brought in Michele Reeves, a urban strategist focused on revitalizing downtowns and other mixed-use neighborhoods by leveraging their strengths, to tell local business leaders gathered at the Banker’s Suite Wednesday how to bring more people to downtown Astoria.

“People don’t drive between businesses downtown; they walk” said Reeves to a ballroom filled with business owners, city employees and concerned community members. She said that every change in the region should be made with pedestrians in mind. “Pedestrians equal sales per square foot in downtowns.”

Reeves, who has consulted cities as small as Forest Grove and as large as Portland, focused on how the downtown association could go about eliminating “blanks,” or areas of downtown not conducive to foot traffic and window browsing.

She pointed to Commercial Street – specifically the area around the Liberty Theater – as a node of activity from which revitalization can spread. Signs of effectiveness, she said, include an interconnected, walkable downtowns, pleasant-looking facades and interiors and street level dialogue.

Street-level dialogue

“I want to see stuff on the sidewalk that engages me and encourages me,” said Reeves, adding that outdoor tables are the best indicator of a restaurant year-round. “Any business can be engaging and outward-facing on the ground level.”

Window displays, she said, are the best way to tell what a business is about – signs are the least efficient form of communication to customers. Every building should have at least a three-color paint scheme. Astoria needs more lighting on its buildings, which should look open even when they’re closed.

“People should be able to tell in one or two seconds what you’re about,” said Reeves, adding that window displays – not signs – are the more effective way of communicating with consumers.

Reeves said she loves downtown’s new garbage cans and planter boxes, part of a $250,000 municipal streetscape program funded through the Oregon Department of Transportation last May.

Vacancies

“You have a lot of retail... and not a lot of demand,” said Reeves about the continuous stretch of commercial property along the waterfront, built for a time when Astoria had more people. Whether its by renovations or changing the building codes, bringing more housing to the downtown area will aid in its revitalization, she said.

Some audience members brought up a continuing source of vacancies in Astoria:?the Flavel properties on Commercial and 14th streets.

“We have hit a roadblock,” said Brett Estes, community development director for the city of Astoria. “We cannot find Mary Louise Flavel.”

Building inspector Jack Applegate detailed the many avenues the city has used in trying to reach the landowner, adding that there are other city blocks to work on.

The city last year passed the derelict building ordinance, requiring storefronts to design window displays, such as the shrine to clowns on the corner of 12th and Duane streets next to the Hotel Elliott. City Planner Rosemary Johnson said the city partners with the downtown association to put up those displays for free. City staff said vacancies are always high on their priority list.

Panel convenes to share issues

Kevin Leahy of Clatsop Economic Development Resources convened a panel of successful downtown business and property owners to get their opinions of what needs to happen in downtown.

“Not many towns of 10,000 or less have a central business district left,” said Mitch Mitchum, property owner and member of Columbia-Pacific Preservation. “For a town of our size, that’s an accomplishment.”

Matthew Stanley pointed to encroaching big box stores as a disadvantage to businesses in Astoria, urging people to keep their money local. Pete Gimre of Gimre’s Shoes said that despite issues with vacancies and competition, the city is in a fairly good position coming out of the recession.

“I think the cooperative model can lend itself to other businesses,” said Stanley about the community coming together to improve downtown.

Chris Nemlowill of Fort George Brewery added that it’s important for business owners of Astoria to work as partners against more regional competition.

“Paint is cheap,” said property owner Warren Williams about beautifying downtown. “Power-washing your business is inexpensive. Throw some paint on what needs it.”

Mitchum said the fish factory at Bornstein Seafoods has the most potential to draw more people into Astoria, similar to the effect of the Tillamook Cheese Factory.

“Eighty percent of shopping happens after 5 p.m.,” said Reeves in response to questions to the panel of whether businesses should stay open later, adding that one solution might be businesses agreeing to one late-night day of the week.

“Revitalization starts with the people in this room,” said Reeves, adding that the core of involved businesses at the meeting need to be the ones spreading the example and pushing the big goal: getting more people downtown.

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