A downtown is taking shape in Lake Stevens

By Theresa Goffredo

Herald Writer

LAKE STEVENS — Somehow the center of Snohomish County’s fastest growing area remains a relatively small town. Maybe because it’s so hard to find.

Visitors to Lake Stevens must watch closely or they risk passing the one skinny green roadside sign that whispers "City Center" off Highway 9. The road, at first Lundeen Parkway, climbs north in an almost challenging series of twists and turns along the lake to become Lake View Drive. The roller coaster ride slows as the road turns into 20th Street NE.

Eventually, 20th meets up with Main Street. You might guess that you’re in the heart of the city. Two years ago that’s all you could do. But today, Paul Hartsock wants people to be sure.

So he installed a 50-foot-tall structure which he hopes will one day become a city center symbol for Lake Stevens.

In August 1999, Hartsock and partner Henry James plunked down $2 million in cash and bought the Lake Stevens mall, renaming it Main Street Center.

Since buying the center, Hartsock has spent $400,000 in a makeover. He put in new metal roofs so all the buildings matched. He added a covered walkway and a courtyard. And he installed a big clock and set it upon a 50-foot tower of open timber beams.

The 53-year-old Hartsock believed the downtown needed an identity, and the clock helped establish one. There are those in town, though, who would disagree with the investor, believing the downtown needs no symbols. These are people who have lived in town all their lives or long enough to know that the Lake Stevens downtown, where city hall, the museum, the library and senior center exist, has always been Main Street. From the ball field to the fire station, from the Lake Shore Inn to Bike Works — those buildings mark the center of downtown.

"I really do think there is a lot of heart in the downtown area," Lake Stevens Chamber of Commerce president Desiree Cahoon said. Cahoon is also publisher of the Lake Stevens Journal, which has its offices in Main Street Center.

"We have this beautiful park and there isn’t anywhere else I would rather have a business," Cahoon said.

Lake Stevens facts

Here’s a look at downtown Lake Stevens:

  • Central location is Main Street and includes Jay’s Market, the barber shop, Lake Shore Inn, city hall, the senior center, the museum, Neapolis Pizza &Pasta and BC Macdonald’s pub and eatery.

  • Number of downtown retail businesses, professional offices, restaurants and other businesses in Main Street Center and Lake Stevens Plaza: about 20.

  • In 1997, Main Street Center was assessed at $1.7 million. The plaza was assessed at $736,300, according to the Snohomish County Assessor’s Office.

  • For Jay’s Market owner Warren "Jay" Jones, the downtown’s strength is that people feel like they’re part of a family when they shop there.

    "Here we still know everybody and send flowers when an older person passes on," Jones said. "And it’s pretty neat, and I don’t know how long that will last, but it hasn’t changed."

    As the center’s new owner, Hartsock doesn’t want the community feeling to lapse. As a student of demographics, he knows the center is vital for those who live on the lake’s north end and who believe the mall is their place to shop and dine and hang out.

    By 1999, the lake mall was looking a bit worn around the edges. In fact, the perfect for-sale sign for the mall would have read: "Runs good. Needs a little TLC. Only one owner."

    One owner? How could a place, parts of which have been around since the early 1900s, have had just one owner?

    Well, the owner was actually several owners combined into a single partnership called Adams Stores Inc. One of the longtime members of that corporation is Fred Cushman.

    Cushman was born on a Lake Stevens dairy farm 72 years ago. Though he ran the mall’s grocery store for 40 years, Cushman’s current connection to the mall is as a customer and landscaper who takes pride in the 63 rose bushes he has planted there.

    "When I came back from the Korean War I needed a job, so I worked for a tractor company, and when they laid me off, I got a job at the mill’s co-op doing inventory," said Cushman. "And I guess you could say I was doing inventory 40 years later."

    Cushman also volunteers as a docent for the town’s museum, where he enjoys showing visitors by-gone pictures of Main Street and talking about the former Adams Grocery — today’s Jay’s Market — that he and about 10 shareholders bought in 1959.

    In 1979, the partners sold the grocery business to Warren Jones, who changed the name to Jay’s Market. In 1999, the partners then sold the 4.4-acre mall with the 15 retail businesses to Hartsock and his partner.

    "It turned out all right," Cushman said. "It was never a very lucrative business. It was a job for us and inflation helped us. There were a number of times we couldn’t cash checks and we never paid dividends, we just reinvested it into the mall for paint."

    Now that Hartsock’s in charge, merchants have noticed the change.

    "I think it’s terrific. It’s got a much fresher look," Jay’s Market owner Jones said. "And it’s more of what the city planners wanted for downtown, the continuity, the working together."

    Jones said his business at Jay’s has always been consistent, and he isn’t worried about competition from Frontier Village.

    "The analogy I like to use between downtown and Frontier Village is they are Lynnwood and we are Edmonds," Jones said.

    Hartsock invested some money in restoring some of the quaintness to the downtown, and certainly there’s an improvement. But chamber president Cahoon asked at what price.

    "There was nothing really aesthetically great about it, but it wasn’t an eyesore," Cahoon said about the mall’s old appearance. "Did we want upgrades? Sure. Did we want to pay up the you-know-what for them? Probably not."

    Possibly Cahoon’s biggest complaint is that she doesn’t see Hartsock marketing the center.

    But that may change.

    Hartsock’s future plans call for distributing 2-by-6-foot banners around the center’s perimeter. The banners will be emblazoned with a logo — a white, blue and green snow-capped Mount Pilchuck with Lake Stevens in the middle. The center’s logo will also be placed on the clock tower.

    Hartsock is encouraging businesses and even the city to adopt the clock tower in advertising or in promoting Lake Stevens. He believes that that will reinforce the continuity of downtown and give it more of a theme, which, over time, will draw people to the place.

    "This is a very distinct area," Hartsock said. "We are this side of the lake and so we need to make sure we have the right mix of businesses. We need to find something that will work that is logical, such as recreation, or tying the downtown to a boat dock or the Centennial Trail."

    Dave and Tracy Lawrence, who bought the jam-packed business, Hand to Hand, a children’s consignment clothing and toy store April 1, say they chose to buy the business because of its location in downtown Lake Stevens. They are hoping to bank on that location eventually.

    The 15-year Lake Stevens residents say Hartsock might be setting his sights high, but at least he’s doing something.

    "I feel this area is getting more yuppie," Tracy Lawrence said. "And then if we could incorporate something like the Centennial Trail into the downtown theme, well let’s go for it."

    You can call Herald Writer Theresa Goffredo at 425-339-3097

    or send e-mail to goffredo@heraldnet.com.

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