Downtown developments

Scott Swanson

The demolishing of the former bank building-turned video store last month to make room for a long-anticipated Taco Bell got Sweet Home residents’ attention.

Then, in the last week, the former Santiam Drug store, just north of the Taco Bell site, came down.

Despite often-heard public perception that not much progress is being made in Sweet Home’s downtown area, more is happening.

Since the beginning of 2020, more than 30 commercially zoned properties have exchanged hands. But when Sweet Home Community and Economic Development Director Blair Larsen earlier this month hosted a meeting of downtown property owners, he heard about difficulties in renting downtown buildings and under-capitalized businesses that simply don’t last.

“I don’t think we’re having an uptick yet,” he said when asked about prospects for new businesses in vacant downtown buildings.

Still, things are happening. Last year, Mosaic Management purchased Wiley Creek senior living community and care center from Samaritan Health, where it broke ground Wednesday, July 27, on a memory care center that will be next door to a primary and urgent-care clinic to be built and operated by Samaritan.

Meanwhile, in the last year, Ridgeway Health has opened a multi-faceted walk-in clinic in a building owned by retired dentist Henry Wolthuis in the 1000 block of Main Street, next door to the Sugar Vibes donut shop, which had moved from Long to Main Street earlier in the year. Up the street, in late 2020, Scott Snedeker created a women’s clothing specialty shop operated by his mother-in-law, Cha Crown, at the corner of 12th and Main.

But in recent months, three businesses, Dan Dee Sales and Sweet Things Boutique, and earlier this month, The Swan Chinese restaurant have all closed their doors.

Larsen said the restaurant owners told him they were having issues with the facility, which had remained closed to public dining following the COVID pandemic, and ODOT curb and sidewalk construction work multiplied their problems.

“I don’t think they were treated very well,” he said.

He said he’s eager to hold another meeting with commercial property owners “to hopefully, kind of help them connect the dots.”

“We don’t have a bunch of money to throw around, but we do have some funding that we give for exterior improvement grants. We could work those into a project and make it help. It’s not huge and it still going to rely a lot on the property owner investing in their property, but I hope to help them see the opportunities that are there,” Larsen said.

He said he’s encouraged by efforts put forth by downtown property owner Peter Mynar, who plans to locate a brewery in a building he owns at 1101 Main St.

“Frankly, that’s what we hope for for all of these properties,” Larsen said, noting that Mynar’s project is “a labor of love.”

“That’s not an investor coming in and saying, ‘How can I make money off of this property?’ That’s somebody saying, ‘I want to do this. How can I make it happen?’ I love it.”

One effort the city has made to stir things up downtown is its Streetscape Plan, approved in March by the City Council.

Developed by Eugene-based Dougherty Landscape Architects, the plan outlines strategies for landscaping, trees, lighting, signage, street furniture and parking in an area identified as the Main and Long street corridor between 9th and 18th avenues.

Larsen cautioned when the plan was approved that it proposes some significant and costly changes, and will probably need to be enacted in stages.

A key element of the plan is a reworking of 13th Avenue between Main and Long streets into a “festival street” that would be one-way, with angled parking on the west side of the street. A concept sketch includes a pedestrian gateway reading “Fun on 13th Avenue” leading into the road from Long Street. Vehicle access could occasionally be blocked for farmers markets, music or other events.

A plan to test out that idea by holding the Oregon Jamboree’s Tune It Up Tuesdays evening performances on 13th Avenue was jettisoned at the last minute due to what Larsen described as “concerns” voiced by nearby business owners.

“I think there’s hope for it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s dead. I think it’s still a great idea and I think it will happen. I’m going to put together kind of a better plan on paper that I can kind of address some of the concerns that have come up, and I just need to go meet personally.

“It’s helping people understand what the vision of it is.”

He predicted the one-way street would slow traffic down, allowing more parking and pedestrian safety.

“Think of a really dense city, a vibrant city, that you might have been to, where you had a quasi street-slash-parking lot. You get to that point and then it’s like, people don’t mind, you know, being in the right of way to load their car with stuff from the feed store.”

Quarry Property

A major contributor to potential commercial growth for Sweet Home is what’s become known as Quarry Park, the 230-acre former quarry property between the north end of 24th Avenue and the South Santiam River.

The city was given the land by Linn County, which foreclosed on it late in 2010 due to nonpayment of property taxes. In late 2017, county commissioners approved the transfer of the quarry to the city of Sweet Home. They’d initially intended to transfer it to the Sweet Home Economic Development Group (SHEDG) for use as the future home of the Oregon Jamboree. However, SHEDG declined, due to the cost of property taxes that would be assessed and other reasons.

The City Council discussed the future of Quarry Park on June 28, viewing a schematic that outlined proposed locations for an amphitheater to accommodate concerts, sports, trails, camping and parking spaces, a gazebo/arbor space, an outdoor school/wetland learning center (the property includes four ponds) and an office facility for SHEDG.

Larsen said questions that will need to be answered include how the park would be managed and by whom, as well as finding ways to finance its development. A key ingredient in the mix is the agreement with the county, which requires that the park be a public space.

“What we’ve talked about has involved a big concert venue, it’s involved sports fields, trails, camping, primitive camping and RV camping,” Larsen said.

“All that’s been discussed. And so what are the parts of that that you can monetize? There’s a pretty broad definition of public use, because, for example, the fairgrounds in Albany are public property, and that’s for public use, right? So, you know, you got plenty of people who rent the right to use those facilities.”

He said the city is looking at similar facilities in other communities and how those are managed.

The bottom line is that the Quarry property provides great potential as a draw to Sweet Home beyond the Oregon Jamboree.

“The sports tourism market is huge,” Larsen said. “I think a lot of people don’t realize what that really means. I’m not talking major league baseball here or anything like that. You’re talking a 3A state championship that you’re going to try to host here, or some kind of high school invitational. Soccer, baseball, whatnot. There’s a ton of people that travel all over the place, for their teenagers’ sports.

“So the thinking is, ‘Hey, what are those people going to need when they’re looking at a tournament. They’re going to want a place to stay, a wide variety of places to stay where they’re not going to break the bank; they’re going to want places to eat. And frankly, they’re probably going to want something else to do too, while they’re there.

“So yeah, it’s a great market,” he said, adding that it would likely require a hotel and “a restaurant or two” to meet that demand.

The 154-acre former Willamette Mill property to the west of Quarry Park, purchased by local businessman Josh Victor from Linn County earlier this year, will be key to the park’s development, he said.

For one thing, a major hangup to the development of Quarry Park has been lack of street access to the area, which may be alleviated by Victor’s purchase of the land to the west earlier this year, Larsen said.

“That hurdle, fortunately, is gone now that it’s privately owned again,” he said, adding that although environmental contamination issues remain, “Josh Victor is working on that and he’s had some successes in the short time that he’s owned it. I think there’s reason to be optimistic that by the end of the year, that’s all going to be cleared up.”

Getting the Word Out

Larsen said that when the city is ready to develop Quarry Park and find a firm or organization to manage it, it will issue a request for proposals and “advertise the heck out of it – getting in every newspaper, the Daily Journal of Commerce, the Portland Business Journal, all that stuff, to try to get as much attention as we can. We’ll probably do cold calling.”

In March of this year Oregon Business magazine focused on the effect of rising real estate prices on Sweet Home in an article that described some of the community’s history and the potential of Quarry Park and other assets. The article, viewable at http://www.oregonbusiness.com/article/real-estate/item/19504-home-sweet-home, included interviews with Larsen and various real estate and business leaders.

Larsen’s been looking for opportunities to promote Sweet Home, and he got one last fall when Site Selection magazine decided to focus an issue on Oregon and city officials were able to purchase a full-page advertisement.

“This is a magazine that gets into the corner offices and executive suites,” he said. “So we decided to go ahead and spring the money because we really want people to be aware of the opportunities here.”

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