By Amy Rolph Herald Writer
Downtown Monroe is in transition: here an 80-year-old tavern, there a newly rebuilt storefront, and everywhere the signs of a slow plan to revitalize Main Street.
But city activists say the Main Street they envisioned hit a roadblock late last year when Gov. Chris Gregoire outlined drastic cuts to close a $2.6 billion deficit in the two-year budget. Among the cuts was the elimination of a small program within the state Department of Commerce: Washington state’s Main Street Program.
With education funding and health services on the chopping block, the tiny agency doesn’t look like a drastic cut. But to those seeking to revive stale small-town centers, it’s a monumental loss.
Some are trying to reverse that loss by finding the program a new home at a different agency.
Vickie Mullen, a city activist and business owner with the Downtown Revitalization and Enhancement Association of Monroe, said the termination of the Main Street Program means she and the rest of the group’s board will be without training and guidance — and in many ways, without direction.
“We’re doing great, but we can do so much more when we have more hands-on training,” she said. “We won’t even get that chance if the program goes away.”
In Monroe, the program has helped the city apply for grants for various projects, suggested it look at placing video cameras in some alleys to help cut crime and advised it on revitalizing older buildings.
As cities progress to higher certifications under the program, they receive more intensive guidance on how to improve downtown economic viability, design, promotional efforts and build communities.
Destination cities such as Port Townsend, Walla Walla, Chelan and Ellensburg are receiving that sort of intensive attention from program mentors — the level to which some Snohomish County cities, such as Monroe and Snohomish, aspire.
The program was slashed to bare bones during this budget cycle, eliminating $366,000 and 1.5 employees.
Now the program consists only of Susan Kempf, the coordinator. She had plans to expand to other towns in Washington. Now, she’s just waiting to see what happens.
The importance of preserving healthy downtowns is easy for her to describe: “It’s like the living room to your community.”
A movement is underway to save that living room. Supporters say the most realistic plan would be moving it to the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, the state’s primary historic preservation agency.
It’s expected a bill will be introduced to the Legislature this winter proposing the move.
Allison Brooks, the state’s historic preservation officer, said it wouldn’t be unprecedented for the program to move to her department. A number of other states, including California, have affiliated downtown revitalization agencies with historical departments.
But until a bill is drafted and the governor sounds off on the idea, she won’t venture a guess on whether the program will move.
“No one is saying no at this point,” she said.
Meanwhile, a Facebook fan page titled “Supporting Main Street in Washington State” has garnered hundreds of supporters in the last few weeks, many of whom use the page to vent their frustrations.
“Billions of dollars to bailout Wall Street and (Washington) state is to cut out the Main Street Program?” one fan wrote. “That is so wrong. Healthy downtown brick and mortars and communities are the foundations of any real lasting recovery.”
“We purchased property in Port Townsend in 2000,” wrote another. “The biggest reason we did so was because of it being a Main Street town. Please don’t go backwards.”
Monroe business-owner and community activist Amanda Kleinert said efforts to revitalize the city’s downtown will continue if the program dies. But it would be a little tougher, not to mention disheartening.
“It would be a huge disappointment,” said Kleinert, the owner of Main St. Books. “They’ve been so helpful already, and we were hoping to get more help.”
Read Amy Rolph’s small-business blog at www.heraldnet.com/TheStorefront. Contact her at 425-339-3029 or firstname.lastname@example.org.