Main Street effort aims to pick up where others have stalled, move ahead

Scott Swanson

If you were to change something about Sweet Home’s downtown, what would that be and what would you do?

That’s the question a group of students from the University of Oregon’s Community Planning Workshop will be asking residents this Saturday, Oct. 3, at the city’s Harvest Festival in Sankey Park.

Their presence is the result of the City of Sweet Home’s decision to join 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.

City Planning Services Manager Laura LaRoque said the city is participating in the program at an exploration level, “which means we just check out what they have to offer and see if it’s a good fit for our community and see if we want to take any next steps.”

The move to investigate the program and take some initial steps with the University of Oregon team grew out of the Livability Study, which late last year produced a 160-page report that assesses Sweet Home’s economic, transportation, housing, health and employment situation and makes numerous recommendations of actions community residents could take to improve things.

“A few of the smaller focus groups working on action plans (as part of the Livability Study) started talking about whether there is comprehensive design for downtown – is there something coherent or some sort of document that exists?” LaRoque said.

In fact, several such documents exist, dating back to the 1990s, she noted. In 2003 a 100-plus-page plan was created by the Oregon Downtown Development Association for Sweet Home, complete with specific recommendations for facade improvements, pocket parks and other streetscape improvements, parking improvements and more.

That was followed in 2010 by a Downtown Retail Market Analysis that assessed the city’s retail and business needs and included recommendations for improving its economic environment. The Livability Report echoed some of the earlier analyses and added more recommendations.

“People have mentioned some of the previous efforts that have taken place, and some of the good things that have come out of that,” LaRoque said.

“There may be areas where there might be a little more need to explore further to see what we can do to improve the downtown area – and by ‘improve’ we mean filling more of the storefronts, making it a more pleasant place to walk, for pedestrians to be.”

A big concern, she said, is maintaining momentum in implementing recommendations.

“We need some projects that are short and focused, that have an outcome, that get some results.”

City officials decided that, although a private entity such as SHEDG’s Sweet Home Active Revitalization Effort (SHARE) could partner with Main Street, the completion of the Livability Study made timing critical.

“There’s always the question of who takes the lead and kicks these projects off,” she said. “At the current moment, the city seemed to have more staff and resources. So we decided to do the city route.”

Although Main Street focuses on all four of its core principles, local interest currently seems to center most on the design aspect, so the decision was made to bring in the graduate students from the Community Planning Workshop to help get things moving in that area.

“They have a program where they match cities with graduate research students to do a project in the communities,” LaRoque said. “It’s kind of two-fold. You get really qualified folks working on projects and at the same time students get experience working on those projects.”

They met Wednesday, Sept. 23, with a group of downtown property owners who have agreed to serve on a Project Committee to monitor the progress and help develop an action plan based on what residents have to say.

Members of that committee included: Ericka Baham of the Rio Theatre, Dave Bauer of Steelhead Strength and Fitness, Chamber of Commerce Manager Katrina Crabtree; city engineer Joe Graybill, who is also a chamber and SHARE board member; Joel Keesecker of Unified Insurance Group; LaRoque; Scott Swanson of The New Era; and Henry Wolthuis, a retired dentist who chairs the city Planning Commission.

Nancy Patton of Trash to Treasure also has volunteered for the committee, but was not present last week. UO students who participated were Bethany Steiner, Aniko Drlik-Muehleck and Keegan Oneal.

After the Harvest Festival, the students and the city will host a two-hour community input workshop later in the year.

Meanwhile, the students are reviewing the previous studies and analyses focusing on the downtown area and will develop case studies centering on what other communities are doing. The goal will then be to produce a final draft plan for presentation to the City Council and/or the Planning Commission by the end of the year.

“Design is just one piece of the puzzle,” LaRoque said. “You need all four to be successful. On the other hand, you have to start somewhere. We’re kind of funneling down the four things, kind of picking off the one that seems to have the most interest and momentum.

“The community seems to be most interested in the design aspect right now.”

That doesn’t mean that organization, promotion and economic restructuring will be ignored. For instance, she noted, the chamber, SHARE and other private efforts such as the Farmers Market are already engaged in promoting activities that draw people downtown.

The next step will be to talk with community members at large.

“We’re seeking input from the community regarding what they like about downtown area, what they like just in general about Sweet Home, what (they) like about other towns,” she said. “What do you think we can get to work here? We want to take some of those components and add to what we’ve already done.

“We want to gain an understanding of what the community wants. We have a lot of needs. Every community does. But it’s just building on the momentum that we’ve already had from all these other initiatives.

“Finding out why they didn’t work in the past and seeing if we can maybe do them a little bit different – get some activity.”

For more information, contact LaRoque at (541) 367-8113.