Josh Benham

Promising downtown developments highlighted a work session in which the Urban Renewal Agency heard wide-ranging updates on economic development.

On Monday night, La Grande Economic Development Director Christine Jarski detailed a primary achievement she said she’s been working diligently on that represents an uptick in commercial interest downtown: utilizing the space in the IOOF Building at 1106 Adams Ave.

“It continues to be the most blighted property downtown,” Jarski said.

Jarski said after more than a year of discussions with interested parties regarding the URA-owned building, a party has recently emerged that has the “capacity and desire to move forward,” and there is a pending offer on the table to purchase the property. While Jarski didn’t give any specifics, she said the city’s plan right now is to have retail or restaurant businesses on the first floor, including a local business interested in expanding, and potentially develop the second and third floors into apartments.

La Grande City Manager/Urban Renewal District Manager Robert Strope said the offer is pending due to contingencies such as the interested party waiting to see if it receives a $100,000 Oregon Main Street grant.

Jarski added that a possible franchise that would “fit nicely” with the local business was identified by the agency for the IOOF Building through its retail development program, as well as three or four potential leads for the building that currently houses JCPenney, which will close July 31.

In January, the URA finalized a contract with Buxton Company, a Texas-based customer analytic retail growth company, to maximize La Grande’s retail potential. The contract with the agency and Buxton is for three years at $50,000 per year, with a fee of $10,000 to opt out after the first year. In the first year, the agreement will be partially funded by a USDA-Rural Development grant for $25,000. Jarski said the agency will be receiving the grant soon.

“We have completed phase one and two (with) Buxton Company,” Jarski said.

In addition to contributing retail development and recruitment strategies, Buxton will also provide tools such as networking and strategies for local existing businesses. Also, specific demographic and lifestyle data can show the agency information which demands are being met, and which are not, by retailers in town. Jarski said Buxton generated a list of 20 potential businesses that have expressed interest in expanding to Oregon. The list was presented to an ad hoc committee composed of local Realtors, business owners and La Grande Main Street representatives, which has been reviewing the information and providing feedback to Buxton and the URA.

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer