Downtown Eugene Coming Back To Life

by Lorin Nelson

Some businesses have been in downtown Eugene for decades, others failed after just a few months.  “Within the last few years business in general has been difficult for our community and our society and that’s been true for downtown.” LaVena Nohrenberg said, the Customer Experience Manager at the Eugene Public Library.

The recession in 2008 affected cities on a national scale and Eugene among many others are still working towards moving on and upward from trying times. According to Eugene Mayor, Kitty Piercy, “Downtown is on the cusp of reinvigoration.  It can still feel chancy to those who might invest. We have some quality of life issues with a number of people really struggling as a result of the recession. So no economic picture is without some real concerns.”

When walking through downtown Eugene you spot an empty lot, or a pit or two, one is on Broadway and Lincoln. “Back in the 70s, the county gave approval for Valley River Center to be built. Malls were all the thing then and all the major department stores downtown moved to VRC, leaving huge gaps in our downtown.” Piercy said. The city has closed Broadway and other streets hoping to change dynamic and then opened them back up. “The city has used urban renewal funds unsuccessfully and more recently with success. Now for the first time in years there seems to be a substantial move forward.” Piercy said.

A vacant building on the corner of Willamette and Broadway is fenced all the way around.

“We have pushed forward in spite of the huge national and state problems and have done a great job considering. People from across the nation look to us for leadership on many fronts.” Piercy said. Piercy said that there are many obvious reasons why this holds true and the Olympic Track and Field trials coming this summer are proof. The trials are expected to bring well over $30 million into the community. Along with the 2012 Olympic Trials the Oregon Bach Festival will also bring people to Eugene and the downtown area.

Piercy said times are still tough due to the recession, however, downtown Eugene is making a change for the better with new developmental projects underway. According to the City of Eugene website “In February 2010, the elected officials of Lane County, and the Cities of Eugene and Springfield jointly adopted the Regional Prosperity Economic Development Plan. The plan includes a set of ambitious goals and specific tactics for the region.”One project in particular is the new Lane Community College (LCC) building. The $55 million downtown campus project will extend LCC from its original location on 30th and assist to the already placed smaller LCC building, the new building is expected to serve three times the number of students than the current LCC location in downtown Eugene. The project includes a state-of-the-art Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum education building; the campus will also include a new student-housing complex that will accommodate 256 residents. The student housing is scheduled to be complete in August 2012, and the education building will be complete in December 2012. (www.eugene-or.gov).

The banner in front of the new LCC housing building is easy to spot when driving by for those who don’t know about the new downtown edition.

“We’re extremely excited about Lane Community College Downtown Campus, we are proud to be one of the early buildings in the resurgence of downtown.” Nohrenberg said. Nohrenberg has been a Customer Experience Manager at the library for over two years. The Eugene Public Library has been at its West 10th Avenue location for almost 10 years according to Nohrenberg. She said that the library is a destination point in the downtown area for an infusion of positive activities. The range of students expected to attend the new campus will be from young students, older students, to seniors. Nohrenberg said that the LCC Downtown Campus will be very positive for downtown Eugene and for the library.

“People seem very excited about the LCC new green learning center in our downtown.  It has already been a catalyst for a lot more downtown activity such as the Park Place Apartments, the renovation of the Taco Time building, the Woolworth Building, and the renovation of buildings for Lord Leebrick theatre that will likely open this year.” Piercy said. Piercy said that the connection between the Library, the LCC campus and the transit center “will be synergistic”. The housing project along with the LCC campus will bring more than 250 new residents to the downtown area and will help businesses in downtown Eugene.

According to the Eugene City Council website the Envision Eugene project is underway with a goal to help The City of Eugene grow and change in the form of jobs, homes, parks and schools. The ultimate goal of Envision Eugene is to reach its Urban Growth Boundary by the year 2032 which will be accommodating up to 34,000 more people. Other projects The City of Eugene are working on are the Capstone Project and the Regional Prosperity Plan, both intended to “activate downtown” Piercy said. “The city and county have offered low interest loans that have spawned quite a lot of business success: Ninkasi, Oakshire, Hummingbird, Mountain Rose, Glory Bee to name a few. Ninkasi is the fastest growing craft brewery in the nation.” Piercy said.

Nohrenberg said that the Willamette Street pits have been filled in the past few years and Casey square on the corner of Broadway and Willamette is used for concerts and events during the summer to bring people to the downtown area and remind them of the great restaurants and other business. “Downtown is kinda like the living room of our community, giving people a place to connect.” Nohrenberg said.

An April 2012 article in The Register Guard said that “A longtime Eugene eyesore” has been replaced with a five-story office building on Willamette Street near Broadway; the building replaced one of downtown’s two excavated pits. The Woolworth building is owned by the Bennett family, which owns the Downtown Athletic Club across the street and other properties and their partners Rosaria Haugland, Bill Sokol, Roger Neustadter and Don Corson. The Woolworth building is the first new structure in downtown Eugene since 2008.

Downtown Eugene businesses old and new have access to a program known as The City of Eugene Business Development Fund (BDF). The program provides assistance through the federal Community Development Block Grant Program by helping create jobs and stimulate private sector investment according to the Downtown Eugene Website. BDF has loaned over $11 million to over 180 businesses and since 1984 has helped create over 1,000 new jobs according to DowntownEugene.com.  The BDF is still active in the downtown area and is available to help businesses get started in downtown Eugene.

Although a few buildings are empty waiting to be rented in downtown Eugene according to the Mayor downtown will continue to improve. The city intends on filling vacant lots soon and many are being made more affordable to renters.

“The Chambers of Commerce have been working to build financial investment in our cities and to cultivate an angel network.” Piercy said. “Right now there is a move underway to give new life to the closed Hynix facility too.  There’s just a lot going on and we intend to keep it moving.”

Bars in Business in Downtown Eugene

            The bar scene in downtown Eugene doesn’t seem to be effected by the recession or any other changes made to downtown Eugene for that matter.

“It doesn’t really stop people from drinking that much.” Said Ron Mackey, owner of The Rok nightclub. Mackey has been at his 7th and Willamette location for over 7 years. His business started as a country bar formally known as The Rock n’ Rodeo and Charros Restaurant. Mackey had to change the name to The Rok to move with the changing crowd he said, “The country people sort of moved on.”

Mackey said the only struggles he faced during the recession was Taboo closing down on 6th street because the bar goers like to wander. Taboo, a once known nightclub in Eugene closed in 2009 and was reopened by new owners and called Blueprint, which also has now closed down.

In the past few years Cow Fish, a nightclub on 62 W. Broadway, debuted on April 15, 2010 and has been open and able to maintain success.

The Eugene nightlife and bars that are in the Downtown area have been there for years including Jameson’s, John Henry’s, Luckeys, Horsehead and Davis. Doc’s Pad formally known as Jogger’s was bought by Gary Miller and his wife Casey, owners of Black Forest pub in downtown Eugene, and re-opened on March 17th of this year.

The bars that occupy downtown Eugene have been able to stay open with a name change here and there, however, it is the nightclubs that seem to struggle. The District formally known as the Indigo District on 13th and Oak was known for its violence due to a shooting in 2005 and one in 2008 and many other problems in between. Eventually late last year the owners, Eugene native Phoenix Vaughn, his sister Haines and their family shut the club down again. The venue is now a new bar, Level Up Barcade and is managed by Kenny Wilson. The bar opened April of this year according to KEZI.

Eugene Locals Have Their Favorites

            “We have a tremendously loyal customer base and we continue to try and make improvements every year as we can afford to and they’ve responded really favorably.” Melissa Brown said. Brown is the owner of The Kiva, a grocery store 100% locally owned and operated. The grocery store is a sustainable type store supporting local farmers and the community. The downtown location is on 11th and Olive and has been there since 1970. Brown said she has seen business fail large and small, however recently she said there seems to be fewer and fewer vacancies.

A new addition to Eugene, VooDoo Donuts, a Portland company, opened in the downtown area on May 7, 2012. The Independent donut shop won “Best New Addition To Eugene” in the 2012 edition of “Best Of Eugene Weekly” the shop also won “Best Downtown Business”. This is one Donut shop that does not seem to be struggling as a business in downtown Eugene.

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