Talk to anyone whose childhood stretches back to the 50s or 60s and there's bound to be at least one special memory tied to a trip to their local downtown or main street.
Just the right scale for walking. Home to a favorite soda fountain or café. A place where you always saw people you knew and had to come away with a purchase no matter how small, needed or not.
Today with a growing preference for walkable communities, locally owned and operated businesses, community celebrations and civic connections to the past, these historic streets and districts are re-emerging as the heart of the community that draw people together and help rebuild local economies.
Downtown neighborhood associations, national Main Street programs and public programs from local and state governments that offer technical and financial assistance can provide the nudge that moves business owners from inspiration to action – even in an uncertain economy.
Metro is a public partner in several programs for revitalizing downtowns and main streets that offer strategies from small – such as lighting and window display techniques – to grand, such as a comprehensive revitalization curriculum for a commercial district.
Two programs for downtown property and business owners available through Metro's Development Center are the Get Street Smart program and a fundamentals of downtown revitalization program.
Get Street Smart program
The Get Street Smart program, offered from June to November 2012, provides six free one-hour sessions spotlighting tools and resources to help businesses and communities revitalize and reinvest in their commercial districts.
"The Get Street Smart series focuses on the importance of improving the physical environment versus other forms of marketing," says program presenter Seanette Corkill of Frontdoor Back, a visual merchandising and store design firm.
"We start with lower cost upgrades versus major overhauls or remodels. I'm biased, but investing in the physical assets of your store environment as a 24-hour marketing tool versus marketing whose life cycle expires when the paper is recycled or the refresh button is hit is a very worthwhile investment."
The program has been presented in Hillsboro, Gresham, Lake Oswego and Oregon City and covers storefront improvements, sidewalk displays, window staging, merchandising and store layout, distinctive signs and lighting, and store promotions. The series is co-sponsored by Metro and each host city.
Downtown revitalization curriculum
Another Metro resource is a four-part workshop series featuring urban strategist Michele Reeves of Civilis Consultants and her fundamentals of downtown revitalization program.
Reeves has presented her curriculum over the last two years in Gresham, Forest Grove, Hillsboro, Lake Oswego, Oregon City and Tigard with the help of Metro and the local host cities.
She advocates telling the unique story of a downtown through its historic buildings and identifying improvements that business and property owners can make to enrich a downtown's pedestrian environment.
"Small steps bring big dividends in the revitalization game," said Reeves. "How things look, smell, taste, and sound are what create atmosphere, good memories, and positive mood, and there isn't a single business or building owner who can't contribute to that in some small way almost immediately."
Help from city, regional and state programs
Andy Busch, co-owner and salesperson at Tom Busch Home Furnishings in downtown Oregon City, took advantage of a string of grant opportunities from the city and state in 2012 to update his family's 120-year-old commercial building on the corner of Main and Eighth streets in Oregon City.
Busch had been part of Reeves' series of revitalization workshops in Oregon City in 2011 and attended the Get Street Smart program in 2012 for merchandising strategies.
"We're tired of the wagon wheels representing historic Oregon City," said Busch. "(Reeves) brought a higher connectivity for how to take a big building and make it cool."
Reeves and architect Brian Emerick, who specializes in working with historic buildings and is also a presenter in the Get Street Smart program, developed an adaptive reuse case study for buildings the Busch family owns on the half block property in downtown Oregon City.
"When you're working all day, it's hard to think about what it would take to do an adaptive reuse," said Busch. "Having the resources made it feel less daunting."
Busch received a $45,000 matching grant from Oregon City's Adaptive Reuse-Rehab Grant Program to help offset expenses of adding a new retail space to the ground floor corner of his building that he's leasing out.
He was also awarded a matching grant from the city's Storefront Improvement Grant Program for exterior projects with a maximum award up to $40,000, and a Diamonds in the Rough grant from the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office to help restore the historic building's look and feel closer to as it was in 1895.
Busch estimates the total amount of all grant awards offset about 20 percent of his costs.
While attending the Get Street Smart workshops, Busch was applying for the grants and relied on the expertise he learned to help make a case with Oregon City for removing the awnings on his building.
"It really helped to have the back-up when I was making the request," said Busch. "The Get Street Smart program threaded through the entire grant application process which was lengthy. The workshops helped."
Every sidewalk a stage
Kristen Ling, owner of A Framer's Touch, a custom picture framing studio and gift gallery in downtown Forest Grove, took advantage of both Metro-sponsored programs in 2012.
As a participant in the Get Street Smart program, Ling won a drawing for one hour of on-site consulting time from Corkill. Ling paid Corkill to come out a second time to advise her on store displays and merchandise layout.
"I'm starting my second decade of business," said Ling. "I need fresh eyes on my store and it's helpful to hear the perspective of someone who isn't emotionally a part of what we do."
A common thread in both programs is the idea that every business has the opportunity to offer a unique experience and expression of what they are.
"It's like inviting friends into your home," said Ling of the personalized help she received. "(Reeves and Corkill) re-energized my thoughts of how I wanted other people to perceive my store. What I appreciated and valued most was that my customers were unable to put their finger on what was changed but somehow knew something was different."
"Activating" the sidewalk in front of a business to attract pedestrian traffic.
"The series really reminded them how to view their stores from their customers' perspective," said Corkill, "to walk out front and really take inventory of all the elements that add up to a good first impression."
One of the changes suggested by Reeves that Ling made was to "use the sidewalk like a stage" by moving merchandise out onto the pavement in front of her store to capture pedestrian attention and create interest along the street.
Because Ling doesn't own the building her business is in, the changes she chose to make were ones she could easily do herself.
"There's a lot a tenant can do without waiting for the landlord to be ready to invest," said Ling.
Asked if any of the strategies she used could be linked to increased sales, Ling observed that the changes were received positively by her customers and that created an opportunity for a conversation which creates an opportunity for a sale.
"I have more customers coming in and customers spending more," said Ling.
Using color to help tell a downtown's story
For Cliff Kohler, commercial property owner in historic downtown Gresham, participating in Reeves' downtown revitalization workshops had an impact that is visible today in the colorfully painted 12,000 square foot commercial building Kohler owns and leases out to four businesses.
Kohler had the contracts in place to repaint his building using traditional colors when he attended Reeves' workshop in 2011. Inspired by her advocacy for using color to highlight the architectural features of a building and add interest, Kohler checked with his tenants and the city and got the thumbs up for using a more vibrant color palette.
"(Our color choices) were an absolute direct result of Michele Reeves," said Kohler whose colorful building attracted attention from three different newspapers. "We've had 95 percent positive comments from customers and tenants."
The color change made existing signage more visible and helped pull in new customers. "I am always amazed at what a little paint and some building lighting can do for how a district feels 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Reeves.
Kohler has plans in 2014 to upgrade the colors on another commercial building he owns on Gresham's Main Street. He also credits Reeves with inspiring him to create a mission statement for his business.
"Michele's workshops helped us to frame the discussion with our tenants and point us in a future direction," said Kohler.
Kohler added language in his leases requiring tenants to use some of Reeves' recommendations for "creating a dialogue with the street" – revitalization-speak for attention to details like sidewalk quality, windows, street amenities such as customer seating, or bringing displays out onto the sidewalk.
"I am astounded at how inviting a district can become just by having every store create engaging displays and sidewalk activation for passersby," said Reeves. "It's surprising how something simple, like tables outside of a restaurant, can generate instant ambience."
Maintaining momentum to attract new investment
The series format of both programs provides multiple opportunities for businesses to participate – not always easy for busy owners who staff their own stores – but critical to create the change in a downtown or main street district needed to attract new business and encourage investment.
"Those who attended the (Get Street Smart) seminars were likely to be the ones already strategically investing and staying current or growing during the uncertain economy," said Corkill. "To do nothing is to guarantee you gain nothing."
Metro's Development Center has invested $140,000 since January 2011 to help sponsor revitalization workshops and the Get Street Smart program in local cities throughout the region. In addition, the Development Center provides further support to revitalization efforts by funding technical assistance and storefront improvement challenge grants.
Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Forest Grove business A Framer's Touch as A Framer's Choice.