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Earning 'Transforming Downtown' distinction would open new avenues to revitalize downtown

TIDINGS FILE PHOTO - Networking businesses and hosting events like the farmers market is another core aspect of revitalizing the downtown area.Oregon Main Street Coordinator Sheri Stuart likens it to a couple getting engaged. Historic Willamette Main Street (HWMS) Manager Rae Gordon prefers the real estate metaphor of going from renting to leasing with an option to buy.

The common denominator in both comparisons is a certain level of commitment, which is what HWMS seeks as it looks to move up its commitment to transforming West Linn's historic downtown. Right now the district is designated by Oregon Main Street at the "Exploring Downtown" level but officials want to move to tier 2, "Transforming Downtown."

"It shows we're committed and we are using the Main Street approach, and we need technical assistance to get to the next level," Gordon said. "It's like saying, 'I'm dedicated to this space and community, and want to see this through.'"

As part of the Oregon Main Street Program — which falls under the broader arm of Main Street America — the Historic Willamette group's stated goal is to "celebrate and preserve the rich history and natural beauty of the area, invest in the heart of our downtown and create a community where local residents and visitors can dine, shop and connect with others." To advance those goals, Main Street groups' four-point approach includes organization, economic restructuring, promotion and design.

The Exploring Downtown tier of Oregon Main Street, where HWMS currently sits, is meant for nascent groups and primarily emphasizes baseline organization tasks. Membership in the Transforming Downtown tier is for groups that are utilizing Main Street's four-point approach, but need more assistance to expand their horizons further. The final tier, Performing Main Street, is for groups that are deemed to be successfully using the Main Street Approach for downtown revitalization.

The Downtown Oregon City Association across the river is among the nine Oregon groups that have achieved the Performing Main Street designation. According to Stuart, 17 Transforming Downtown Main Street groups reside in Oregon.

The prerequisites for Transforming Downtown include "formalizing" the program structure — typically by forming a 501c3 or 501c6 nonprofit — appointing an active board of directors, establishing a mission statement and employing an executive director. Groups must also have basic inventories of businesses and properties in their Main Street area and show progress in developing a historic building inventory. PHOTO COURTESY OF FRITCHIE FAMILY - The Willamette area has been known as West Linn's core downtown area for decades, and keeping an inventory of historic buildings like the old Willamette General Store is part of the Main Street process.

It's a significant step — but one Stuart says is worthwhile for communities that are serious about the Main Street model.

"As you move up the tier system, at each different level you get a greater bundle of technical assistance from us," Stuart said. "At the top tiers, we're on site more frequently as requested by the community — we'll do board retreats and help set goals for revitalization ... (and) we can take those goals and objectives and help flesh it out into an actual plan."

Transforming Downtown groups also attend quarterly networking meetings hosted by Oregon Main Street.

"The top tier communities come together," Stuart said. "It's an opportunity to learn from each other."

Networking is particularly important to Gordon, who came on as the HWMS manager late last year, and in conjunction with the Transforming Downtown application process she's also working on enhanced networking opportunities between the businesses in the Willamette area.

"Knowing what everyone is doing helps us all be a bigger force," Gordon said.

After a short presentation from Gordon and West Linn Community Development Director John Williams Monday, March 19, the West Linn City Council voted unanimously (two members were absent) to approve a resolution in support of the Transforming Downtown application. Mayor Russ Axelrod also wrote a letter to the Oregon Main Street group in support of the application.

"I'm excited to see the evolving historic area — I've been following it since I moved here," City Councilor Rich Sakelik said. "Hopefully the (General Obligation) bond will pass and there will be some more improvements."

Oregon Main Street is expected to announce its decision on Transforming Downtown application in April.

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