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Experts see big potential downtown

EVALUATION -- Group hired to study business core finds a lot to like
by: Chase Allgood,

After spending three days in downtown Forest Grove last week, Brad Sinn said he was pretty excited by what he saw and heard.

'Forest Grove is a fantastic location,' said Sinn, who is head of the Oregon Downtown Development Association. 'I've seen literally dozens of downtowns and Forest Grove is one of the strongest.'

Sinn, whose group was hired to study the city's retail core, found a few problems, but said overall, Forest Grove's downtown has amenities that many cities lack: natural beauty, a historic Main Street, nearby residential neighborhoods and proximity to a university.

All it needs, he said, is a little bit of time and some focused work. 'It's just potential, potential, potential,' Sinn summed up.

Sinn's group, which included an architect and a real estate expert, arrived last Tuesday. They spent hours talking to local merchants, property owners and city leaders, listening to complaints, brainstorming ideas and, at a few locations, drawing up some rough sketches for possible renovations.

Sinn will spend the next few weeks crunching numbers and distilling his notes into a report, which will be presented to the city. On Thursday evening he and architect Erik Matthews gave a sneak preview of their ideas for 'breathing vitality into downtown.' Among the highlights:

Customer base

Sinn spent a bit of time looking at demographic data (who lives where and how much money they have to spend) and said the numbers look pretty good. Nearly 16,000 people live within three minutes of downtown Forest Grove, he said, with a typical family income of $50,000. Those numbers, he said, currently create challenges for retailers, because there aren't enough people regularly heading downtown.

'Every business has to act like a destination, itself,' Sinn said. With the boom in new housing, however, he said the number of people living within a 10-minute drive of downtown will jump in the coming years, as will the average household income.

Business mix

Sinn will study the types of current businesses downtown and determine whether there are any specific categories lacking. He said one thing that is clear is that an upscale restaurant would help draw people to downtown and he thinks the numbers will show that it could work here.

On the flip side, Sinn said, there's another category of business that people shouldn't expect. 'I hear grocery, grocery, grocery,' he said. But with Safeway just minutes from downtown, he doubts any competitor will be interested in moving in closer to Main Street.

Retail location

Just as import as the mix of businesses is where they are located. Sinn's team found a few retail 'dead zones' in the downtown area. They noted, for example, the United Church of Christ, which takes up nearly a half-block of downtown, presents a challenge for retailers hoping to keep shoppers on the sidewalk. And, even in commercial strips, such as the south side of Pacific Avenue, there are long stretches without any retail stores.

Store hours

A common complaint that Sinn heard was that businesses aren't open in the evening, when people with day jobs want to shop. He said it's a difficult problem, particularly when so many businesses are run by their owners, who are reluctant to extend their own days when the initial evening sales are slow.

Downtown housing

One way to boost evening and weekend shopping, Sinn said, is to get more tenants in the upper floors of downtown storefronts. People shop where they live, he said, and 'getting more people living downtown keeps people on the street 24 hours a day, seven days a week.' As part of the Thursday presentation, Matthews showed a sketch he made of a new building with retail on the ground floor, and loft condominiums and a rooftop garden above.

'As people move here,' he said, 'they're going to want some urban living space.'

Parking crunch

If your customers are driving, they need someplace to put their cars - and it had better be close to your store, Sinn said. In Forest Grove, he said, he heard a lot about this topic. His conclusion: 'People who say there's plenty of parking are right. People who say there's not enough parking are right.' What he means is that overall, there's plenty of parking downtown, but at certain spots, such as the north end of Main Street, it's often too scarce. Sinn's report will include some recommendations, including finding a way to get retailers and their employees to keep their cars off the street.

High rent district?

Another complaint Sinn heard was about the cost leasing retail space. He will analyze the numbers for the final report, but doesn't expect this to emerge as a big problem.

Overall, Sinn said Forest Grove is poised to capitalize on the growth coming not only to the city, but the rest of the area as well. He said that across the country, shopping malls are losing business to smaller retail clusters. He noted the success of Streets of Tanasbourne, a new retail center in Hillsboro that was built to resemble a typical downtown. 'They're recreating what your downtown already is,' he said. 'It feels like home. That's its major strength.'

The key is figuring out what the downtown wants to offer, he said. 'The first step is to decide who you are. How is Forest Grove different than the surrounding area?'

Then, he said, the city needs to move forward to make sure the vision is matched by reality.

'The communities that make it happen are the ones that lay out an action plan and, one-by-one, things get done. Improve the streetscape. Create some redevelopment. Whatever is on the list.'

Finally, Sinn said, once the downtown is where people think it should be, others need to know about it.

'Downtown Forest Grove needs to be packaged and marketed as a destination itself,' he said.