A New Plan for Downtown?

This article appeared in The Issaquah Press, November 19, 1997

By Stacy Goodman

Leaders of the effort to revitalize historic downtown Issaquah are reorganizing with a new plan of attack.

Last year the decade-old district became part of the national Main Street program. With help from a one-time state grant of $5,000, Main Street Issaquah was up and running as a part-time entity.

Organizers now believe that turning downtown into a thriving center is a full-time job that needs plenty of community input and 100 volunteers.

“It may not always be here if we don’t preserve it,” said Susan Smith, interim executive director of the Main Street program. “This has to be a project the whole community invests in.”

Smith, a former consultant to the city, volunteered to serve as the interim executive director after Linda Kelleran resigned the post at the end of August.

Smith is busy canvassing downtown merchants and property owners about their problems, ideas for solutions and what direction Main Street should take toward preserving the “central heart of the community.”

The organization’s legal name still is Council for Historic Downtown Issaquah.

“We don’t know what downtown needs,” Smith said. “I think that’s what people thought last year, that we had all the answers.”

What became apparent, however, was that Main Street needed to be a full-time effort. Issaquah is a small city, but still has major problems needing full-time attention – particularly regarding traffic and growth, how they affect each other and downtown, she said.

A full-time program would need an annual budget of $55,000. Organizers have embarked on an ambitious fund-raising effort led by local businessman Skip Rowley on behalf of the Greater Issaquah Chamber of Commerce. Rowley has pledged $5,000 and the City of Issaquah will provide $10,000. In a recent letter to Chamber members to raise the $40,000 balance, Rowley asked each of them to step up and pledge at least $200 per year for the next three years.

“Every city has noted the need to really support its historic district, and Issaquah is no different,” Rowley wrote.

Cathi Champion, president of the Main Street board re-elected to the position in September, said the vitality of the area affects all of Issaquah.

“This is about making Issaquah be what it wants to make it thrive and economically viable,” Champion said. “It’s not about making it a cookie-cutter area.”

If Main Street were to become a full-time program, Smith and Champion want the north-south borders of the cultural and business district expanded to Gilman Boulevard and the Community Center area, which would include about 160 businesses. Currently, the downtown core is bordered to the north and south by Dogwood and Bush streets, and to the east and west by Memorial Field and First Place Northwest, encompassing 114 businesses.

The next order of business would be to create specific goals based on widespread community input about how the Main Street program should be implemented.

“How do we approach traffic? How do we get people to stop? Do they know where to park? Do we lobby for widening the streets?” Smith said. “All we can try to do is listen to what the majority of them think is a good idea and steer.”

Smith likened the role of the Main Street program to that of property managers of malls, in addition to its preservation role.

According to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, the downtown “comprises the soul of the historic community of Issaquah,” and specific regulations and procedures are encouraged in order to create a place conducive to parades, festivals, pedestrian activities, public gatherings and tourism.

Smith said any significant change could take three to five years. Already she is chipping away at about 20 small problems. For example, Front Street Market for years has requested Metro bus schedules be available in their store.

“Give me problems like those,” she said. “I can fix them.”

But for the longer-term goal the organization will need 100 volunteers, she said, according to officials at the state’s Main Street office in Olympia.

“There are so many pieces that could merit attention … that we have to be a coalition because one person or board cannot do all these things,” Smith said.

Other factors in the success of downtown look promising. A parking study recently conducted by the city revealed there is more parking downtown than people perhaps realize, although the study won’t be released for a couple of weeks, Smith said. She believes the public confuses congestion with parking.

Last year Main Street participated in developing a new sign code for downtown, started its First Tuesday meetings, sent out its first newsletter, organized a spring clean-up day and provided free holiday lights to create a festive shopping area.

This year the goals are to create an active Main Street membership and create a direction for the organization – and then prioritize the many tasks.

Members are helping plan the design of the new King County Library to be built at the corner of Front Street and Sunset Way. They also have plans to make parking areas more visible. Another task involves questions about tenant mix and how to attract the most viable businesses.

After the work, and results, will come the celebration.

“When you’ve got a good tenant mix and people know where to park, then you can have a Mother’s Day event,” Champion said. “Then comes the time for promotion and celebration for the community.”


This Article © 1997 Issaquah Press. Used by permission