Downtown Olympia Working Hard To Rise To Its Challenges

Ask 10 different business owners about the current state of downtown Olympia commerce and you’ll get 10 very different opinions. But one thing everyone seems to agree on is that they don’t want to be anywhere else.

“There’s no better place to run a small business than downtown,” says Mathias Eichler, owner of Einmaleins, an Internet broadcasting network and media company on State Avenue.

Karin Olsen, owner of Radiance Herbs & Massage on 5th Avenue, also loves being downtown. “Anybody who comes into downtown has that sense that it’s very neighborly. It has that kind of small-town feel in a bigger environment.”

“We’re thrilled to be a part of the business community in downtown Olympia,” says Jeff Bert, co-owner, with his wife Roma Bert, of Gravity Beer Market on East 4th Avenue, near the edge of downtown’s core and not far from the new City Hall. “We see ourselves as part of what the city has to offer in the way of true Mom and Pop businesses and we’re proud of what we do.”

Another thing everyone can generally agree on is that Olympia is faring better than the downtowns of many peer cities.

“Compared to other downtowns, our vacancy rate is in the healthy range, under 10 percent,” says Ruth Snyder, Downtown Code Enforcement Officer with Olympia’s Community Planning & Development. “Most downtowns use that as a fairly good indicator of economic viability.”

Snyder is the city’s liaison to the Olympia Downtown Association (ODA) and the Parking and Business Improvement Area (PBIA), two organizations devoted to helping downtown Olympia and its businesses weather current economic challenges and thrive.

More than 400 businesses in the roughly 70-block PBIA district pay required yearly dues ranging from $150 to $750. The PBIA’s advisory board is made up of 15 volunteers who own businesses in the district.

Those funds go toward graffiti clean up, flower baskets in the spring, lighted snowflakes in the winter, the artists’ bench project, and the “It’s Your Olympia” banners that ring the downtown area.

The ODA is responsible for such popular events as Music in the Park and Downtown for the Holidays, among others. The ODA also works to continue to strengthen successful events such as Arts Walk.

The ODA’s Funding comes from voluntary member dues and businesses opting to divert some of their B&O taxes; those businesses then receive a 75 percent credit the following year on their contributions. The program directs general fund tax dollars to be used at the local level.

“What I like about the ODA,” says Radiance’s Olsen, “is that, as an umbrella organization, they’re able to organize a group of business owners to be able to put on special events, which I think is really helpful.”

“We try to collaborate with as many people as we can, to be partners wherever we can,” says ODA executive director Connie Lorenz, “because what’s good for the community is good for downtown.”

 

Challenges abound

There are plenty of fantastic things to crow about in the downtown core: Percival Landing, the fountain block, the array of shops, Farmer’s Market, and Capitol Campus. They all combine to make downtown Olympia unique. And the new Hands On Children’s Museum, slated to open in spring 2012, promises to be another big draw for locals and visitors. The list goes on and on.

But, of course, downtown also faces numerous challenges, including a prolonged economic downturn, high numbers of loiterers and panhandlers, the need for more new – and diverse – businesses, and the move last year from free to paid parking.

Olsen’s sales at Radiance weathered the fiscal storm of the past three years pretty steadily, until last fall.

“We definitely saw a pretty uncomfortable drop in sales, while our expenses all increased,” she says. “But we’ve been shifting back up again and having a more evening out.”

Snyder knows that most commercial areas are struggling during this difficult economic time, and believes that “makes the PBIA even more significant in making sure [our] goals help to keep the downtown vibrant and energized.”

Ottavelli agrees. “Businesses must continue to weather through the difficult economic times, but also continue to work together – through the PBIA and ODA, in partnership with the city and downtown groups that put on events – to ensure that Olympia continues to have a broad-based appeal.”

“We have a beautiful downtown, we just have a lot of big city issues in a small town,” says the ODA’s Lorenz. “I think sometimes we go a little overboard with too many taverns and tattoo shops. I’d like to see us recruit more diverse businesses downtown.”

Eichler touches on the conundrum experienced by so many downtowns who have lost big stores to malls over the past generation: “You often feel alone against the rising tide of disinterest in preserving Main Street as a core function of our lives as Americans.”

Lorenz remains optimistic. “When you lose big stores, the entrepreneurs come out. You can typically pay lower rents in a downtown and you’re part of something different than a mall or a strip mall. There’s a real sense of community. And I think that is really what has kept downtown going.”

But Joe Hyer, co-owner of The Alpine Experience, believes there aren’t enough passionate, young entrepreneurs starting up businesses to truly fuel the growth and demand for which downtown has the capacity. Why? “There’s no access to capital. Without that, nothing gets moving. Until the banking industry lends again, it’s hard to be hopeful.”

Hyer also notes some of the positives and negatives many people experience downtown. “I love walking everywhere,” he says, “but I don’t like rude people hanging out and discouraging visitors. I like sidewalks and awnings, but don’t like derelict storefronts whose property owners won’t take care of them.”

Gravity Beer Market’s Bert mentions some of the same issues. “We’re glad City Hall is now in the core of downtown.” Bert believes it’s important for city officials and city workers to see what actually transpires downtown. “They’ll now be more engaged with the negative aspects – loitering, drinking in public, drug use, and panhandling – and hopefully make the right choices to help give Olympia an overall better vibe than it currently has amongst a large amount of our fellow community members.”

Paid parking seems to be paying off

Many business owners — and community members – were dismayed by last year’s change from free to paid parking downtown.

City Councilman Craig Ottavelli understands and shares in that frustration. “I think the timing was poor for taking away free parking during this economy,” he says. “Discretionary spending is down and people are making difficult choices about where and how to spend their money.”

Radiance’s Olsen wasn’t worried about the change, and although her store saw slower sales last fall, she blames the economic downturn, not paid parking.

“Many of our employees and customers have complained about parking,” she says. “It’s an easy target for complaints. But when we looked at our sales, we actually had a greater drop in our weekend sales [when parking remains free] than we did in our weekday sales, which indicated to me that it wasn’t a parking issue.”

Hyer also wasn’t concerned with the switch to paid parking. “Paid parking exists everywhere,” he says. “Whether it is paid directly by a user, or subsidized by a business, it is paid parking.”

And he’s seen a positive change: “Since they went to paid parking in the core, turnover has increased,” he says. “More stalls are available for short-term customers.”

Eichler agrees – mostly – that paid parking hasn’t been an problem, saying that if people think of Olympia as a true city, paid parking shouldn’t be a big deal. “If you think of Olympia as a small town, it’s tougher to swallow.”

But Eichler also believes the city could do a better job in communicating its downtown strategy and how the paid street parking fits into that plan, because otherwise, “it seems that making parking paid is uninviting to potential visitors.”

“Parking’s always an issue downtown and always will be,” says the ODA’s Lorenz, “You’re never going to make everybody happy about parking.”

Hyer agrees. “ There will always be people who complain about parking. But for most of them, if it weren’t parking, they would complain about something else.”

Downtown Olympia’s future

So, things are humming along relatively smoothly for downtown Olympia, considering prevailing economic difficulties and common problems experienced by nearly all downtowns of similar size. But what do folks hope for and expect, looking to the future?

The PBIA’s Snyder would like stakeholders and policymakers to look to cities that have struggled with economic development and succeeded in changing the complexion of their downtown cores in dramatic ways.

“One of the innovative ideas in the area of city planning is the concept of placemaking, where a decision is made to make the core a place where people not only want to shop, but also spend time with their families or friends,” she explains.

Percival Landing, Snyder says, is a perfect example of placemaking. “This concept can be done on a smaller scale in multiple locations providing more areas of sociability,” she continues. “Possibly a basketball court, a place for people to sit and do board games or listen to music during lunch time, those kinds of things.”

Snyder is very attached to the ideas of downtowns and their potential for bringing people together. “I have a great affection for Olympia,” she says. “Above all, it’s a kind place and works to serve a diverse population as best it can with limited resources but a tremendous amount of caring.”

Councilman Ottavelli has long dreamed of an “18-hour” downtown Olympia, an area buzzing with people and activity 18 hours a day.

“A major component of having that 18-hour downtown – and one that’s been most notably missing from our downtown – is residential,” Ottavelli says. “People of all income levels living in the heart of our downtown that would make for a vibrant and rich community. We certainly are lacking in that regard.”

Radiance’s Olsen is optimistic about downtown’s continued growth and ultimate success. “That’s my nature, I’m a habitual optimist,” she says with a laugh. “So I always think the world is looking up.”

Einmaleins’ Eichler believes downtown needs people with vision who can step up and call out Olympia’s potential. “My hope is that someone with a young, fresh, bold vision – and financial backing – will step up and present Olympia with something so compelling that the political arguments that have discouraged progress in the past will be silenced.”

He’d like to see Olympia become a model city for green, sustainable, dense, smart, urban living. “What everyone is attracted to in Olympia is its potential,” Eichler says, “It’s a fantastic city, perfectly located in the Pacific Northwest, that’s just waiting to blossom.”

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