Urban consultant meets with local businesses to improve struggling area

How to fix downtown Tigard is a bit of a mystery. At least, that's the assessment of urban consultant Michele Reeves.

Downtown has all the things Reeves likes to see: a winding, meandering Main Street, access to a trail system, old historic buildings and plans to make the area more walkable.

But according to city officials, roughly 10 percent of storefronts are empty.

'So why are you still struggling? That is a mystery,' Reeves told a room of downtown business leaders and city workers Tuesday.

Reeves is leading a series of events, sponsored by Metro, to revitalize the city's mile-long downtown.

'Being 99(W)-light is going to permanently hamper you,' she said in her second meeting in as many months. 'You are not going to be leveraging things that can make this district strong.'

What Main Street is lacking are 'destinations' for people to come to and other attractions to keep them there, she said.

'Right now, downtown Tigard is a Main Street, but it's not a downtown yet,' she said.

The good news for downtown business leaders: Much of the hard work is already done.

'You're a lot farther along than you think you are. The things you have left to do are the fun, easier 'low-hanging fruit' type of stuff,' she said.

Reeves suggested a coffee shop where the vacant Tigard Sub Shop sits that could become a local hotspot, more colorful paint to liven up the drab color scheme and street art to encourage people to walk.

'We need to think of the downtown like a store. The same things we think about in a downtown are the same things we think of to create a well-functioning store. Where is your front door? What does the storefront look like? How do you make customers stay? Where are your best products? Your worst products?'

Reeves said that local developers and building owners should choose their tenants carefully.

'You have to give (the community) interesting things that they are going to want to stay for,' she said.

The city is already taking steps to improve downtown. Upcoming construction on Main Street will widen sidewalks, add street lighting and improve water run-off through swales.

The project's goal is to improve circulation and discourage commuters from using the road as a Highway 99W shortcut.

That 'shortcut' is what sent the Tigard Sub Shop to close in February, said co-owner Marie Marr.

'There's a lot of traffic coming through Main Street but it's going from point A to point B. The downtown has nothing to come to, with the exception of getting your laundry done. Nobody wanders up and down; we are so behind the times it's just amazing to me.'

Reeves said that the city's future construction plans for Main Street were 'impressive' and said that while the construction will hurt business in the short term, it will improve it in the long term.

'I know there's heartache and it can be difficult, but the results go back to our ideas of vision,' she said. 'What is the story that Tigard tells now and what will it be when the green street is done?'

Reeves is meeting with business leaders in April to discuss her recommendations on how to fix the downtown area, and is planning a field trip to Portland's North Mississippi Avenue, which Reeves said Tigard should emulate.

The once crime-prone area has become a retail hotspot over the past few years, she said, and shares many similarities with downtown Tigard.

'Mississippi runs parallel to I-5 and Main Street runs parallel to (Highway 99W). It can be a respite for people.'

What downtown Tigard needs to become, she said, is a community where people want to spend time.

'People's perception of (downtown) has been built over a long period of time,' she said when she met with business leaders last month. 'They think that Main Street is in decline. To change that perception, you have to bring people here and give them a good experience.

'How many people in the region know about the great businesses in your downtown?'

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