Main Street program becoming more autonomous

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer January 18, 2012 08:42 pm

Eastern Oregon University students Kyle Guentert, Nick Thompson and Kaleb Oveson help move some of the Liberty Theaterís original seats back into the building last March. Renovation of the old theater at 1010 Adams Ave. is one of many projects La Grande Main Street has taken on since forming in January 2009. Main Street is currently raising the funds needed to restore and re-open the Liberty.
Eastern Oregon University students Kyle Guentert, Nick Thompson and Kaleb Oveson help move some of the Liberty Theaterís original seats back into the building last March. Renovation of the old theater at 1010 Adams Ave. is one of many projects La Grande Main Street has taken on since forming in January 2009. Main Street is currently raising the funds needed to restore and re-open the Liberty.

It takes a little time for a baby to stand up on its own two feet and totter away. For La Grande Main Street, that time has come.

After three years of nurturing from the City of La Grande, the program dedicated to improving downtown’s business environment is well on the way to becoming a strictly private, citizen-driven enterprise. It has its own board of directors, and committees dedicated to organization, design, economic restructuring and promotion.

For tax purposes, it’s a private non-profit entity as recognized by the Oregon Department of Revenue and the federal Internal Revenue Service. And by this summer, it will have its own office, staffed by a paid-part-time director.

But none of that means that the city and Main Street aren’t still partners. A memorandum of understanding to be considered by the city’s Urban Renewal Agency Wednesday makes clear that the public and the private entity will continue working together to improve the city’s central business zone.

La Grande City Manager Robert Strope said that’s the way the program’s founders envisioned it from the beginning.

“We gave backing and resources with the intent of making this happen,” Strope said. “I think Main Street will be a more successful program. As it grows it will get better, and that’s good for the city.”

Even though Main Street is no longer operating under the URA umbrella as it did in the past, it will continue to get support from the city, financial  and otherwise. Under the MOU, the URA will provide limited assistance and technical advice, support staff through July of this year when the director comes on board, and funding for Main Street-related programs, as available.

For fiscal year 2012-13, the city agency will contribute $25,000 for Main Street personnel expenses. Future funding, subject to budget committee and agency approval, will not exceed $25,000. The MOU says the long-term intent is for URA funds to match revenues from other sources, resulting in a maximum one-third contribution.

For its part, Main Street is required to raise its own funds, keep its own records, and assume responsibility for its committees. By July, it will be operating in its own office.

“There’s a huge advantage for Main Street operating on its own. It’s much easier for them to get the support of the business community. When the program’s owned and operated by business, it eliminates a lot of pre-conceived notions,” Strope said.

The MOU requires Main Street to submit an annual report on programs and projects. That report will include summarized activities on the prior calendar year, a detailed accounting of URA funds used and Urban Renewal Plan-related activities, an account of all funds received through the year, and a detailed work plan for the year that includes goals, outcomes and measurable performance indicators.

 In 2008, La Grande was one of 11 Oregon communities tapped to participate in the revamped Oregon Main Street Program, a state initiative affiliated with the National Trust Main Street Center.

In January of the following year, the local Main Street program launched with a community meeting at Cook Memorial Library. Volunteers began signing up for the four core committees.  Main Street has initiated or taken part a variety of programs and projects since then. For one thing, its design committee has been heavily involved in the “BIG H” project, a major downtown streetscape improvement project set to get under way this year.

For another, Main Street has helped downtown businesses navigate the requirements of the city-run Facade Grant Program.

“Main Street’s role has been to help businesses  take the next step, making them aware of the program and guiding them through it,” said Alana Garner, currently the city’s Main Street coordinator.

But the most prominent initiative for Main Street is the planned restoration of the Liberty Theater. Friends of La Grande Main Street, a division of the Main Street program, recently purchased the Liberty Theater building at 1010 Adams Avenue for $162,800. The purchase was facilitated with an initial $75,000 loan from the URA, and the city has rendered additional assistance since then. Main Street is currently in fund raising mode for the project, which will cost more than $1 million. Two businesses rent space on the building’s ground floor.