By Casey Pechan
The Many Attempts at New Downtown
Like spring cleaning, the Downtown Springfield cleanup is something that city officials and Main Street residents keep returning to year after year. In the 1950’s, a short informational video was made encouraging Main Street to install parking meters in order to revitalize. In the 1970’s, attempts were made once again to refocus on a dwindling downtown, and again in the 1980’s.
Committees have been created and disbanded. Buildings have been moved. Yet nothing has managed to truly take hold, and downtown has continued to struggle for progress and focus. In the last 10 years, the City of Springfield has once again thrown its time and money into Main Street, this time with a 70 to 80-page long-range plan that endeavors to encompass all that downtown needs. Perhaps this, along with some other recent additions to the Springfield community, will do the trick.
Nefarious Activities of the Past and a New Prison
“We have a new jail that has helped to curb some minor problems,” Springfield Community Development Manager John Tamulonis says. Just a few years ago, downtown was home to two strip clubs and bars that encouraged some not-so-legal activities. With bars and strippers came prostitution, drugs, and a far higher rate of petty crime than is seen today.
“The jail said if you’re going to do something here we’re going to catch you, put you in jail, and if you don’t like that, don’t do it in our community,” Tamulonis says. The new jail, in combination with the city and community working to force out problematic businesses, has left downtown far quieter. Now students from the Academy of Arts and Academics can be seen milling through Main Street during their lunch breaks, while locals filter through thrift shops and antique stores, or strive for the perfect watercolor mix at the Emerald Arts Center.
“The prostitutes are gone, and there is a lot less drug dealing,” says Renee Moser, owner of Econo Sales, a fabric store that has been a staple of downtown since 1966. In fact, Springfield was so bad that some, like current Washburne Café owner Marilu Harriet, had moved out of the area years ago. Harriet describes the old downtown as “divey,” and only chose to invest in the Washburne after she saw several positive changes happening. And while crime may have cleaned up due to the new prison, many of the new additions and beautification of downtown can be attributed to the City of Springfield, and NEDCO.
NEDCO and Main Street Managers
Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation, or NEDCO, is a national non-profit that has descended on Springfield in the hopes of giving downtown the makeover it desperately needs. A massive and colorful mural covers much of the left side of the building, and large bay windows open up to its Main Street entrance. Along with the city, NEDCO has been implementing the long-range downtown plan in a slightly different way than the previous revitalization attempts.
Their grassroots approach is one of community economic development, which is simply a way to approach economic development from the ground up, reinvesting in the community, recycling money, and not investing in companies that would take money away from the state.
“We are the parent organization for a fledgling Main Street Program, which is the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s model for downtown revitalization,” executive director of NEDCO, Clair Seguine, says. “We also have a business assistance program. We provide loans to businesses here on Main Street, and we do the farmers market here.” NEDCO, along with the 80 or so volunteers of the Main Street Program, believes that “an economy that thrives, builds off itself.”
They have taken on the massive task of once again making downtown an appealing and activity-filled place. The streets are quiet after the jail and the city scrubbed much of the crime away, but now Seguine hopes that they will bustle during the second Friday of every month for Art Walk, be filled with produce during the Wednesday farmer’s market, and have parking lots packed when the Wildish Theatre puts on a performance.
“The mall is great for some things, but it doesn’t provide that community gathering place that a downtown does,” Seguine says. However, revitalization is far more difficult than building a shiny new mall. Rather than taking an empty field, throwing a few million dollars at it, and building a new shopping center that will excite people because of its newness, Main Street must combat its reputation, and the fact that old is not often considered exciting.
There isn’t an option of creating new infrastructure or simply filling the area with franchises. Downtown is working to highlight and refurbish its run-down historic buildings, and do what it can with the infrastructure and businesses that are already in place, while creating a sense of vitality.
So you need lights?
“What would make all the difference in the world down here, which we have requested from the city since I’ve owned this [shop], is lights,” Betty Koehler, co-owner of Sweeties Self Serve Frozen Yogurt, says. “People do not want to come down when it’s late at night.”
When evening descends upon downtown, suddenly all of the empty storefronts become more noticeable. A street corner can seem far more eerie wrapped in the grey light of dusk, a “For Lease” sign taped over a black window seems ominous, and nothing can be seen past the flash of headlights, streetlights, and the occasional well-lit restaurant or bank. It’s at night when it truly becomes apparent that the makeover is far from over. But cheerfully lit sidewalks will not happen in Springfield, or anywhere, overnight.
“We’ve identified several different lighting options for intersections,” Springfield Assistant City Manager Jeff Towery says. “We know folks are interested in lighting and now we’re going to give them some options and ask, what kind of lighting do you like?”
Some believe that it is up to the city to provide proper lighting for sidewalks, others believe it is up to business to keep a well-lit storefront.
“The part that has been the crux of it is that a lot of business owners haven’t left their lights on, it stages your materials if you do that,” Tamulonis says.
NEDCO is hoping to find the middle ground between city and store owner. “We’re just now getting serious about trying to figure out what can the city do, versus what can the property owners do, versus what can the business owners do,” Seguine says. “So that collectively, it’s lighting from inside the stores, outside the stores, out onto the street, but each of those areas is somebody’s domain.”
The slow war over lighting has been fought in committee meetings and with petitions for years, but there is one thing many who are working for change in Springfield can agree upon: that change and prosperity is only seen where a collective effort, and community commitment, is made.
The city struggles with cost, NEDCO searches for volunteers, and business owners struggle with slow improvement. “I think a really vibrant downtown has a really great partnership with both owners and tenants,” Towery says. That is what the fledgling Main Street Program hopes to achieve, a cohesion between owners, businesses, and the city to find a solution for their shared ground.
Maybe eight or nine years down the road, students will be overheard on the University of Oregon campus talking about taking the EMX to the large farmers market in downtown Springfield, everyone in the surrounding area will get excited for second Friday Art Walks, and Main Street’s reputation will be one of family and community fun.
Photo Slideshow of Downtown:
Video of the second Friday Art Walk at the Springfield Museum: