Downtown plan gets tweak, away from design focus

Scott Swanson

The direction of Sweet Home’s Main Street program has been altered a bit following a meeting of local citizens last month and feedback from local residents at the city’s Harvest Festival on Oct. 3.

City Planning Services Manager Laura LaRoque said that the emphasis on design, which would have incorporated a team of students from the University of Oregon, has been put on the back burner for the time being, replaced by other emphases that are more immediately doable.

“The focus is a little different than what the project was proposed for,” LaRoque said last week. She said that before the design focus can effectively be pursued, there needs to be funding and coordination.

“We need to have capacity, somebody to lead the effort,” she said. “We can come up with the best idea around, but there’s that question: Who’s going to pay for it?”

She said the city will continue to participate in Oregon Main Street, a state program based on the National Main Street U.S.A., which aims to equip participating communities with an organizing framework to preserve and revitalize their traditional downtowns and commercial districts, according to its website.

The Main Street Approach is based on a comprehensive, four-point strategy: Organization, Promotion, Design and Economic Restructuring. Currently, 78 communities around the state are participating in the program, according to its website.

With the design aspect seemingly off the table for now, the city will continue “working on different pieces of revitalization and exploring funding mechanisms, LaRoque said.

She said the design aspect of the project could be reinvigorated if the city Planning Commission should take an interest in it. Commissioners will hold their monthly meeting on Nov. 2.

Another option later could include some sort of local improvement district, she said. Such an improvement district can be formed by 80 percent of property owners in a designated area to provide upgrades to that area, or by the city. It essentially would involve a tax to pay for necessary improvements to a specific area – typically street improvements, sidewalks, traffic signals or other specific needs. Such districts have been established throughout the state, including in Albany, Lebanon, Portland, Happy Valley, North Plains and Oregon City.

“In a local improvement district, people impose a self-tax but they have control over how it’s spent,” LaRoque said.

Meanwhile, she said, city officials have decided to focus on other, more immediate projects that would involve more effort than funding.

LaRoque said she got quite a bit of comments from a wide range of participants at the Harvest Festival.

“There’s a lot happening right now in Sweet Home,” she said, listing the Willamette mill site between 18th and 24th avenues, the former Knife River property that is in the process of being transferred to the Sweet Home Economic Development Group by Linn County, and the Livability Study.

“Mostly, I was there to give people information,” she said of her time at the festival, during which she talked with “at least 20 to 30” people, some at length.

Feedback from residents centered particularly on improving the downtown, establishing activities to bring residents together, park improvements and showcasing the arts, she said.

She said most seemed to consider “downtown” to be the stretch of Main and Long streets between 10th and 18th avenues.

Certain aspects of the downtown got thumbs-ups from participants. “People like the murals,” she said. “They talked about the murals that had been painted over and the loss of those. Residents liked the ones they see and they want more. They talked about some they’ve seen in other communities that they thought could be done here.”

They also like the trash cans, the flowers in the median and trees in the downtown area.

“People pushed for more greenery on the sides of Main Street – flower boxes, places to put greenery.”

Some of the particular interests included:

n Retail – “They really want local places to shop.

n Visual improvements – Storefronts, LaRoque said, were a particular topic of interest. More than one mentioned using empty windows for displays by local artisans.

“People are very interested in what we could do to the actual design of buildings to make them look better. They wanted to showcase the local artisan community, see how they could fit into the the windows downtown.”

n Community design and branding – “People were about 50-50 on whether we need a theme or a brand,” LaRoque said.

n Signage – One idea local residents brought up is improving signage in town, she said.

“People say, ‘It took me three months to find Sankey Park.’ That’s not good.”

She said improving signage for visitors is the kind of project that the city can act on right away, since it’s not particularly costly and doesn’t require a lot of time and effort.

“Signage is kind of exciting,” she said. “It’s something we could move on.”

n Public art – “People want to showcase the local artisan community. They want see how they could fit (artists) into windows downtown, figure out a way to decorate storefronts.”

n Clean-ups – Another theme was improving the look of downtown by tidying things up, she said.

“People are very interested in what we could do to the actual design of a building to make it look better, but maybe it’s just clean-up. We could get the community together, clean the sidewalks, wash the windows.”

n Activities – “They thought there are not a lot of things to bring people to the downtown area,” she said. “They want to see downtown alive, bands playing, stores open late, activities to bring people into stores.”

An example, she said, is Pendleton, which offers a charm bracelet activity in which participants visit stores to get charms for a bracelet they are given.

“People come downtown, pick up an info sheet and find out which stores have which charms,” LaRoque said.

“One of the things that we already do well is holiday bazaars. That’s something we already do that we could build on. People want places for kids and adults want something to do. It stretches into all age ranges. We need a lot of activities appealing to a wide audience.”