WALLA WALLA — The conversion of a once morose Main Street in this rural American city has become almost legendary across the state.
Just over 20 years ago, downtown Walla Walla’s worn streets meandered through an anemic commercial core. The spectacular architecture of century-old buildings had, in many cases, been shrouded by nondescript false fronts leading far too often to nothing in particular since about 30 percent of the buildings were vacant.
Then came a massive public/private movement to revitalize the commercial hub. Two decades, a Local Improvement District, utility replacement project and many overhauls amounting to tens of millions of dollars later: the dapper downtown is the heart of the community. Main Street is the artery running through it. And Walla Walla has become a storied role model for revitalization across Washington.
But officials from Puyallup to Port Townsend fear that other Main Street programs across Washington won’t get a similar chance at a happy ending.
Facing a $2.6 billion projected budget deficit, Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed eliminating the Main Street program that helped Walla Walla’s downtown become what it is today.
In response, Main Street program devotees have banded together to try to save the operation and its roughly $120,000 biennial budget.
One idea, expected to be floated through a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview, and Bill Hinkle, R-Cle Elum, early this week, is to move the program from the Department of Commerce to the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.
If that’s not approved downtown officials worry what the impact will be to the economic development program.
"Probably most disturbing is that Main Streets are not being recognized as important," Downtown Walla Walla Foundation Executive Director Elio Agostini said Friday after hanging up from a conference call with about 40 of his peers across the state.
This is the second consecutive year that major cuts have been proposed to the program. Walla Walla once again finds itself in an unusual position compared to other communities, Agostini said.
It does not need the intensive mentoring involved with other fledgling programs.
"For those communities starting up, this is a killer," he explained.
On the other hand, Walla Walla needs the Main Street program to continue in some format for the administration of its Main Street Tax Credit incentive.
Established by the state in 2006, that program provides a 75 percent tax credit for private contributions to a designated downtown revitalization program. The credit has been instrumental in securing financial contributions over the last several years from Banner Bank and Key Technology and, for the first time in 2009, the Union-Bulletin.
That money — along with membership fees, events and an allocation from the city — has helped comprise the foundation’s $350,000 annual budget, Agostini said.
There’s more: Through the annual state program — reduced last year by $366,000 and down to a sole employee, Coordinator Susan Kempf — quarterly meetings are organized so that the roughly 85 participating communities can learn from one another. In her role, Kempf travels from community to community helping Main Street organizations through their individual challenges.
The service was utilized in Walla Walla a few years ago after the departure of Timothy Bishop, the downtown foundation’s former executive director. When Jill Dowling succeeded Bishop, the state program sent help to get Dowling, board members and the program aligned.
By then Walla Walla’s program had already been heralded at the national level. A recipient of the 2001 Great American Main Street Award, Walla Walla was an example of a success story at regional and national conferences.
Walla Walla’s new City Manager Nabiel Shawa said he started to become acquainted with the city years ago, hearing stories through other city managers of downtown Walla Walla’s beautification when he was city manager for Washougal.
Agostini said if the program is axed, downtown Walla Walla will continue to operate under the tenets of the National Main Street Center’s "Main Street Approach."
But agencies throughout the state would prefer to keep the lifeline to the Washington, D.C., national headquarters in Washington state.
The movement to save the program has become so strong that a Facebook page started by Bishop and titled "Supporting Main Street in Washington State" attracted 300 supporters in its first three days and now has 490 "fans."
"Billions of dollars to bailout Wall Street and (Washington) state is to cut out the Main Street Program?" posted fan Rich Dustin. "That is so wrong. Healthy downtown brick and mortars and communities are the foundations of any real lasting recovery."
"The downtown areas are rich in history," added Deb Carney Blecha. "They provide a face for communities. Areas without active downtowns are without color. This is where the personality really comes out. It is a difficult job to foster small businesses in any economy, but Main Street provides a network resource that helps every small town in America. Investing in the soul of our state should be a priority."
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8321.