The team of consultants visiting La Grande two weeks ago for the Oregon Main Street Program found a lot of things to like.
J.C. Penny’s early presence in La Grande can be seen on the side of the former Mamacita’s restaurant building. Observer photo/PHIL BULLOCK
Gary Van Huffel of the Oregon Community and Economic Development Department, and Nicholas Kalogeresis and Kevin Clark of the Lakota Group, spent two days touring the city, talking with business owners and meeting with city officials.
They said said they found a high level of commitment to downtown revitalization, and enough physical assets to put the effort on a solid footing.“I think downtown La Grande is fantastic,” Kalogeresis, vice president of the Lakota Group, said during a press conference. “The architecture is great, the setting nice. There are some really good building blocks for future success.”
La Grande was one of 11 Oregon communities selected in 2008 to participate in the newly revamped Oregon Main Street program.
The state program is affiliated with the National Trust Main Street Center, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C.
The program’s approach encompasses work in four broad areas: organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring.
As a participant, La Grande is set to receive technical assistance and other services from the state and the state’s contracted consulting teams.
The consultants visiting Feb. 5-6 compiled an extensive written report during their stay, listing strengths and weaknesses and suggesting some next steps.
Although several store fronts have become vacant recently, the report said downtown is relatively healthy. It noted the presence of still-thriving, “traditional” Main Street businesses.
Those include the Granada Theater, drug and jewelry stores, a bakery and restaurants. Kalogeresis said during the press conference that he finds it particularly heartening that J.C. Penney still does business downtown.
“That’s exciting, because there’s not many downtown districts with a Penney’s store that’s doing so well,” he said.
Also noted in the report was downtown’s substantial core of historic commercial buildings. Most are in good condition and well-maintained, though many need improvement at the store-front level, according to the report.
So-called “ghost signs,” advertisements painted on the sides of buildings long ago, are reflections of downtown’s past and fit well with historic themes. The report deems them as a strength.
The report notes that the City of La Grande is developing a facade improvement program, but also points out the need for more incentives. One suggestion is for building owners to take advantage of the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credit.
In another observation, the report says there should be a better connection between the downtown area and Eastern Oregon University. Also suggested is more communication between people involved in organizing downtown promotions.
The team’s report also included extensive comments on downtown’s parks, plazas and streetscapes.
The report concludes there is a shortage of public open spaces and gathering spaces downtown. Sidewalks are wide enough that pedestrians feel safe walking, but they aren’t wide enough to establish landscaping features and seating areas or outdoor cafes.
The report also recommends streetscape improvements that would, when combined, work together to create an identity for the district.
New benches, bike racks, trash receptacles, planters, way-finding signs, kiosks and new pedestrian lighting.
The items are termed “low-hanging fruit,” improvements that can be accomplished in the short term with a minimum of funding.
“There’s a lot of real simple things that can be done, like improving store fronts,” said Kalogeresis.
Looking further ahead, two major projects that could take shape as a result of the Main Street Program are the expansion or upgrading of Max Square at the corner of Adams and Fourth Street, and construction of a park or green space near the historic train depot on Jefferson Avenue.
Max Square is used for outdoor festivals, events and, from spring to fall, the Farmers Market. The consultants say the square is outdated and too small for La Grande’s needs.
They suggest incorporating more seating and an “open, barrier-free flexible space to set up tents, improve pedestrian flow and create a friendlier environment.”
A plaza or park around the railroad depot would allow more and bigger events with larger crowds, the report adds.
But that is looking well ahead into the future.
For now, the consultants are recommending a Phase One in which various committees adopt a preferred streetscape plan, research and apply for grants, set priorities for plan implementation and take some “quick steps” for immediate impact.
Charlie Mitchell, La Grande’s community and economic development director, said at the press conference the emphasis is on the short term.
“It’s my vision to have the committees develop a one-year plan,” he said.
Patience is a key to success. No downtown was ever transformed overnight, the consultants cautioned.
“This is a long process,” Van Huffel said. “It typically
doesn’t start to tell for three or four years. Then the effort’s up and running and it doesn’t stop. Look at Baker City. They’ve been adding improvements to their downtown 25 years.”