By Oliver Lazenby
Downtown Blaine isn’t alone in having vacant storefronts and a lack of shoppers – downtown districts and retail stores are struggling nationally.
For those interested in re-energizing downtown Blaine, there’s a bright side to that predicament: they can learn from a growing body of research into what has worked for downtowns that have bucked the trend. That’s the message a crowd packed into The Pastime Bar and Eatery heard last Thursday, July 13.
The city of Blaine and the Blaine Chamber of Commerce hosted Ellen Gamson, executive director of the Mt. Vernon Downtown Association, who described how downtown Mt. Vernon has become a lively spot with popular events and diverse retailers. Its downtown had struggled ever since the Cascade Mall opened in Burlington in 1990, she said.
Gamson attributed much of Mt. Vernon’s success to its participation in Washington state’s Main Street Program, which is administered by the state department of archaeology and historic preservation and has been working with cities since 1984. The program provides an outline for downtown revitalization based on past successes.
After the Mt. Vernon Downtown Association joined the program 10 years ago, program staff spent a week in Mt. Vernon and gave the organization a report of what opportunities they saw and guidelines for what to do first.
“The thing that’s beautiful about Main Street and the reason that it’s worked for Mt. Vernon, despite 20-plus years of joint community efforts to try to revitalize the district, is that you get provided this sort of road map of how to go about working to revitalize a community,” Gamson said.
In addition to consultation, the Main Street Program provides a tax credit for donations. Businesses that donate to an eligible downtown association can write off 75 percent of their donation. Donations can fund such things as grants for revitalization projects and annual events.
The Main Street Program also offers help with administering surveys and holds conferences, meetings and trainings where member organizations can learn from experts.
The program emphasizes working with a city’s unique attributes, including its setting and historic buildings. On that front, Gamson liked what she saw in Blaine.
“Driving through town I was really impressed. Blaine has great bones to work with,” she said.
In Mt. Vernon, Gamson described the program’s success as a slow, multi-pronged process that started with art walks and other events, which eventually attracted businesses, redevelopment and investment.
Getting people downtown and changing the perception that nothing is going on downtown was crucial, Gamson said. If people showing up downtown are key to revitalization, Blaine showed promise at Gamson’s presentation.
Roughly 80 people attended – about twice as many as organizers anticipated, said Blaine community development director Michael Jones. Even Gamson was impressed with the turnout.
“I wish I could get this many people to my meetings. This is such a hopeful sign for the community,” she said.
There are currently 33 official Main Street Communities in Washington state. Before Blaine can be accepted into the program it needs the following:
• A nonprofit organization with the sole mission of revitalizing a clearly defined downtown district.
• A revitalization strategy that follows the Main Street approach with a balance of activity in the areas or organization, promotion, design and economic vitality.
• A vision statement, mission statement, budget goals, objectives, activities and an annual work plan.
• A board of directors and a paid part-time executive director.
Blaine Chamber of Commerce president Ray Maxon is working toward forming a downtown association. He plans to form a diverse committee that will vote on a board of directors with five to nine members, he said.
“Ideally, we’re looking for board members with a skillset that complements the revitalization process – building, design, grant writing, things like that,” Maxon said. “Mt. Vernon has done a lot over a 10-year period and we’re hoping that this is the
first step for Blaine.”
Maxon would like to form the downtown association by this fall. Those interested in getting involved can contact Maxon at 360/355-7206.