BY ROBIN DOUSSARD
Plans for the Heritage Square project in Astoria call for an amphitheater and festival space.
//Photo courtesy The City of Astoria
The Garden of Surging Waves is phase one of the Heritage Square project and will be completed in the spring.
//Photo courtesy The City of Astoria
Dulcye Taylor, president of Astoria’s downtown association, outside her store, Old Town Framing Company.
//Photo by Sierra Breshears
Downtown Astoria has many assets. It has myriad intact historic buildings from the 1920s, including the lovely renovated Liberty Theater and the Hotel Elliott. Over the past few years, breweries such as the expanding Fort George Brewery and Astoria Brewing Co. have arrived (and a third one is proposed for a former seafood processing plant), and there are now more than a few very good restaurants (and two cupcake shops). There is a great little mix of independent retail shops like Vintage Hardware and Foxgloves. It is a downtown that is real, where you can still shop at J.C. Penney, buy garden supplies and get your shoes repaired.
For all those assets, there are challenges, of course. Like all downtowns, especially rural ones, the recession was not kind and some businesses are struggling. Like Newberg/Dundee, a very busy highway with lot of heavy-freight traffic runs smack through town.
There’s concern over nearby Warrenton’s growing big-box business, with stores such as Staples and Dollar Tree, that has already siphoned some business out of downtown Astoria. The Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft store decamped Astoria for Warrenton and left behind 10,000 square feet of vacant space that has been filled by consignment stores and storage. And then there is the impending arrival of a Wal-Mart, which has brought with it the customary and considerable controversy and angst (and continuing comments on our website).
Never a group to sit on its hands, Astoria leaders are facing those challenges in several ways. The “newly revitalized” Astoria Downtown Historic District Association (ADHDA) this month launched phase two of a comprehensive block-by-block assessment and identity process that will take several months.
Susan Trabucco, chair of the ADHDA business development committee, said she’d like to come out of the process with a fresh perspective on the vision for downtown.
“There hasn’t been one for many years,” she said. “What do we want to be?”
One of the issues for downtown is that it can “appear to be lifeless to the person driving through,” she says. “We need to create a shopping environment that is friendlier than it is now. … I would love to see more life on the streets, with stores open more often.”
Dulcye Taylor, ADHDA president, says downtown needs to “refine what we have.”
City manager Paul Benoit sees the downtown as part of a larger picture. “We need to be a rural economic regional center," he said. "We can’t think of ourselves just as Astoria. In truth, we are a regional economic center. Thinking of ourselves in that way takes some of the angst and competition away.”
Benoit pegs the downtown vacancy rate at about 10%-15% if you take the abandoned buildings owned by the infamous Flavel family out of the picture. “The Flavel buildings are a challenge,” he says. “They’re very visible and vacant.” (The Flavels are a story unto themselves, and the city has been struggling with the family’s rundown buildings for years. I digress here, but I have to give a huge shout out to the Daily Astorian’s great story a few months ago about how it tracked down the long-missing Mary Louise Flavel, in Portland of all places.)
Benoit also thinks the new $1.2 million Garden of Surging Waves currently under construction right outside his City Hall office window will draw more visitors and locals to downtown. The late Portland developer Art Demuro bequeathed the final $200,000 need to complete the funding for the garden, which honors the city’s long-neglected Chinese heritage. The garden, scheduled for completion this spring, is the first phase of the larger $3 million Heritage Square project, which will also include outdoor festival space and an amphitheater. Funding is still being sought for completion of the project.
Astoria has long been one of my favorite rural success stories. It has longtime, engaged and enlightened leadership, including Benoit, and takes the long view. It’s done an amazing job with its riverfront redevelopment. There are several large projects under way, including a $5.5 million project to replace the 17th Street pier, renovation of the Astoria Railroad Depot by the Columbia River Maritime Museum, and a new $5 million 12-acre athletic complex made possible by a multi-partner deal. That's just a partial list.
Astoria has weathered a lot of downturns, but has been consistently moving forward. It’s getting a nice buzz around it, including being found out by the New York Times and others. As I’ve traveled around the state reporting on rural Oregon, more than a few communities have said they admire what Astoria has been able to accomplish. As Taylor said, there are a lot of things going right here, Astoria just needs to continue to refine its unique assets.
Robin Doussard is Editor-in-Chief of Oregon Business.