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Dump the beige – Downtown Gresham needs color

Consultant, programs help inspire businesses, property owners to brighten up their spaces
by: Jim Clark Lucio Mendez, left, and Omar Murillo paint the Gentry Building, one of four buildings in downtown Gresham that were given storefront improvement grants.

Cliff Kohler is a man with vision.

After consultations with paint specialists, he selected neutral colors to spruce up the Gentry Building he owns in downtown Gresham. He imagined different shades accenting the names of four separate businesses - Curves, Pup Scrub, Salon Ambiance and Selma's Bakery and Deli - nestled in the building located between 1-84 and 204 N.E. Second St. between Roberts and Main avenues.

He even planned additional improvements - new awnings, a bike rack and new mailboxes - not covered by Gresham's new downtown storefront improvement program. The program will reimburse Kohler for about $10,000 of his nearly $13,000 in upgrades.

Then, a four-part workshop on downtown revitalization fueled him even further.

Michele Reeves, a consultant leading the workshop in cooperation with Metro and the city of Gresham, pointed out how drab and brown Gresham's downtown is.

The buildings need punch, pizzazz, color.

'In fact, I think the quote was, 'Beiges and browns should be outlawed,' ' Kohler recalled.

Chagrined, Kohler put the brakes on the already scheduled painters, who were set to coat the Gentry Building in shades of taupe, beige and brown. He regrouped with the color consultants and went happier, brighter. Within four days his three shades of blah gave way to seven colors including cheery yellow, blue, green and orange.

Instead of just splashing color under the business names up top, he went bold, coloring the entirety of each individual storefront.

More color on horizon?

The Gentry Building may be the brightest in all of downtown Gresham, but don't be surprised if other property owners follow suit. Three other building owners received funding through the storefront improvement program's 2010 round of funding, said Brian Martin, Gresham associate planner.

Nearly $107,000 is being invested by the four building owners - about $80,000 of which will be reimbursed to the property owners through the program.

It's designed to encourage exterior improvements to buildings in an effort to fill vacant building space, retain and create new jobs in the downtown core, boost property values and just plain spruce the area up.

Funding for 2010's round of grants came from federal Community Development Block Grants, but the storefront improvement program has not been funded for 2011, Martin said.

'We may try to do more of this in the future if more funding is made available,' he added.

Until then, look for improvements to begin next month on the northwest corner of Northwest First Street and North Main Avenue in the building that houses Elegantly Funky.

Also, look for changes to the Amiton Furniture building on the northeast corner of Second and Main, and Studio 52, located on Northwest Second Avenue between Miller Street and Main Avenue.

Real-world know how

Between the city grants and know-how from urban strategist Michele Reeves, local building owners could be shaking up the staid and dated look of more downtown structures.

Gresham merchants, property owners and city councilors attending Reeves' series on downtown revitalization are taking what they're learning and putting it into practice.

During a Wednesday, July 27, tour of Portland's Mississippi Avenue's successful six-block business district, Reeves pointed out dos and don'ts for attracting customers to storefronts or drawing tenants to commercial, retail and residential space.

She explained how the northern end and southern end of Mississippi Avenue's district initially picked up steam, which spread to the expanse of buildings between them.

Many storefronts in the trendy shopping and eating area include glass garage doors that serve as windows in winter and can be opened in summer, inviting customers in to browse.

'Creative office space,' Reeves said, sweeping through an expanse of second-story offices. The software company and other small businesses located in the offices share a bathroom and break room. 'Users respond to it like an apartment because they spend all day in it,' she added. Like apartment shoppers, they want exposed brick, hardwood floors and historic architectural detail.

'Color, color, color,' Reeves said gesturing toward the software company's office walls. 'Inside your space, outside your space, on your building. Color, color, color! If you do it right and create great space it's self-filling,' most likely by local entrepreneurs and small business owners, she said.

Infectious energy

Sue O'Halloran, a local real estate broker who shares an office with Kohler at Kohler, Meyers O'Halloran, agreed with much of what Reeves said - such as the need for more outside dining space in downtown Gresham.

On the bus ride home from the tour, O'Halloran brainstormed ways to improve the look of downtown Gresham buildings - starting with her own storefront.

'Our own space probably needs something,' O'Halloran said, referring to the office east of Café Delirium.

There's one building vacancy in the Duane C. Ely Building, home to an antique store, resale-clothing boutique and Thai bistro on the east side of Main just south of First Street. Some fresh paint around the windows to make them pop, some outdoor seating and flowers could be enough to attract a tenant, O'Halloran said.

For creative office space or apartments, the second story of the Amiton Building would be perfect, she said. The nearly 100-year-old space used to be a ballroom and is now a furniture showroom, but its hardwood floor, exposed brick, complete with arches above sheetrock covered windows, would make great office or living spaces.

Expose those old windows and you'd also expose views of Mount Hood.

Arriving in the parking lot at Gresham City Hall, O'Halloran chatted with others from the tour, brimming with ideas for the city.

'You put garage doors across the front of the Hicks Building and by golly, you'd have something awesome,' Martin Stone said.

City Councilor Lori Stegmann, inspired by the food cart pod on the north end of Mississippi Avenue, envisioned a similar pod in Rockwood. It may require some new codes and permits, so the city needs to line that up before cart owners can set up shop, she said. Perhaps it's an item for next year's council work plan

Meanwhile, back downtown, Kohler fretted about how his tenants will respond to the Gentry Building's new paint colors. He even sent out letters asking them to reserve judgment until the paint job and exterior upgrades are done.

No need, said Selma Khoury, owner of Selma's Bakery and Deli on the west end of the Gentry Building. Before the paint was even dry, she loved the melon-hued terra cotta selected for her storefront.

'It's fabulous,' she said while packaging take-out lunches and ringing up pastries. 'I'm really happy with the colors. For six years nobody noticed my sign. And now it's, 'Hey, I noticed your sign.' So it was really nice. And everybody likes the bright colors.'

Once the exterior is done, she's going to liven up her deli with some menu changes and outside dining on the sidewalk out front.

'We're going to go all out,' she said. 'We're going to be the brightest building in downtown Gresham.'