Lessons from Albany: Make them come

Business can be rough sometimes and it definitely has its ups and downs.

The down side has been evident recently as several businesses, including two that have been here for decades in some form or another, have closed.

McCammon’s Furniture, The Potter’s House (on the corner of Main and 13th), Home Town Drug and Mollies Bakery have either shut their doors or are about to.

It’s been encouraging to see some new or improved businesses open: some of the most visible being the Sweet Home Choppers motorcycle shop on the east end of town, the new Subway sandwich shop, and the revamping of the Towne Pump and Shell service stations.

It’s discouraging when businesses that you know people have invested a tremendous amount of effort (and, usually, funds) in don’t succeed. But that’s capitalism.

Still, it makes me wonder what needs to happen, (besides vision and necessary funds and drive) to make our downtown more economically viable – and attractive – to people who have money to spend. Granted, retirement considerations may have played into the decision to close down at least two of the above-mentioned businesses, but if things were booming, I wonder if they would have decided to close the doors. (Plus, I’ve heard from reliable sources that competition from Wal-Mart had a very direct impact on two of those businesses.)

I confess I wasn’t really expecting answers when I went to the Breakfast Club last Wednesday, sponsored by the Sweet Home Economic Development Group (see page 6). The topic was “parking” and the speaker was someone I knew only by reputation, Rick Rogers. Rogers, a longtime downtown Albany business owner, is director of the Albany Downtown Business Association and one of the people who turned that town around.

If you’ve been to Downtown Albany recently, you have to have noticed that things are hopping. Everywhere you turn in the blocks south of the river there are restaurants, businesses selling interesting things, providing services – in short, the place looks and feels like it’s thriving.

I’m relatively new around here, so I didn’t see Albany when it was in the doldrums. But I see what I see and, frankly, I’ve wondered “why Albany?” This is basically a farm town by the river. Why are these businesses flocking in and, apparently, thriving?

I started to figure it out last year when we produced the annual Linn County Parks and Recreation Guide, which listed activities in various communities around the county throughout the year. I noticed, as I worked through the list, that there seemed to be something every weekend in Albany – more than I had room for in that publication.

Rogers, who is behind a lot of that, confirmed it for me. He told us Wednesday that there is, indeed, an activity just about every weekend. Those activities give people a reason to come into Albany and to hang out Downtown – from the Movies by Moonlight on Thursday evenings to the Albany Timber Carnival, which is returning this year, and the Hoop Jam, which is moving from Corvallis to Albany.

Let’s review: Albany is a city that has a mall and some big box stores, as well as merchants to meet every other common need, because about 45,000 people live there. It has a river on one end, a freeway on the other, and farmland filling in most of the rest of the surrounding territory. Why would someone want to go there other than to buy what they couldn’t buy elsewhere in Linn County? Answer: excitement generated by these events.

Now let’s take a look at Sweet Home. We have one-quarter the population of Albany, many of whom work elsewhere, so we don’t have the shopping. Why would anybody want to come to Sweet Home? Answer: The great outdoors. The river. The lakes. The mountains.

We already know what can happen when we put on a quality event. When the stage goes up for the Oregon Jamboree, hordes of people descend on the town. They bring money and they want to spend it.

Sweet Home has what it takes. The question is, how can we put it together to make it work like Albany has? I’m not suggesting we can become Little Downtown Albany, but I am suggesting what should be obvious to all of us: If they can do it, we certainly should be able to do something similar.

Two heads are better than one, so I’m putting the question to our readers: What do you think Sweet Home’s downtown area needs? What kinds of stores, or store combinations, would attract tourists as well as serve local needs?

And one other question: What types of events could happen in downtown Sweet Home to attract folks, either local or from the outside? Sidewalk sales? Farmer’s markets? Movie festivals? Should streets be closed off to allow events to happen?

Tell us what you think and we’ll report back with the results at an appropriate time. E-mail your thoughts to [email protected] and put “Ideas” on the subject line. Or, do it the old-fashioned way to “Ideas,” P.O. Box 39, Sweet Home, OR 97386.