Bursts of color bedeck downtown Walla Walla

A project bore fruit of a sort this morning as flower baskets were hung from light poles downtown.

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WALLA WALLA -- In the early hours before the morning commute, two city employees hauled a ladder through downtown Walla Walla today stopping every couple of yards to hang decorative flower baskets on the city's light poles.

More than two months after the start of a beautification overhaul in the heart of the city -- the first of its kind in nearly two decades -- the arrangements of petunias, superbells, impatiens, calypsos and ornamental grasses are like a proverbial bow on a freshly wrapped package.

Though not all the work downtown is technically done, the flower baskets are one of the final touches, said Walla Walla Parks and Recreation Director Jim Dumont, who drove the truck transporting the baskets from stop to stop this morning.

"It adds more color and vibrancy," Dumont said from the window of the pickup. "It's a good investment."

The city and Downtown Walla Walla Foundation have partnered on the cleanup and enhancements. Started in early April, the work has included sidewalk and street sweeping, gum removal and fresh paint on a number of city fixtures. The signal poles are the final painting project. But when all's said and done, officials say 112 light poles, 23 benches, 32 trash cans and 23 bike racks will have been painted from Main Street between Fourth Avenue and Palouse Street as well as the side streets along that stretch.

The relatively small investment in the flower baskets is expected to add "an incalculable value" to the ambience downtown, said Jennifer Northam, the downtown foundation's events and public relations manager.

With added sidewalk seating at many businesses, summer weather on the brink and a cleaned up image, the streetscape is part of an inviting scene she said may entice more local residents and visitors to linger downtown.

"Tourists are not going to come to Walla Walla just to see flower baskets. But when they get here and see it, it makes them want to stay," Northam said.

"And it's not just for tourists. It adds this ambience that makes our downtown a fun place to be."

The city is funding the brunt of the investment, but Northam said the foundation will contribute financially as well. She said the exact numbers have not been determined.

Dumont said the paint bids came in around $33,000. On top of that, the first-year's investment in the flower baskets is about $20,000. That includes the purchase from a local nursery, brackets and labor. A part-time seasonal employee has been hired to spend about four to six hours a day maintaining the baskets, including watering and weeding the plants, he said.

The hope is that business owners and residents will be inspired to "adopt a basket" and take on the flowers as their own maintenance projects.

The work is the result of months of planning between downtown foundation representatives and city officials. Members of the Downtown Beautification Committee include Dumont, Northam, downtown foundation Executive Director Elio Agostini, Walla Walla Development Services Director Kim Lyonnais and Walla Walla Public Works Director Craig Sivley. City Manager Nabiel Shawa has been a supporter of the project as well.

Despite occasional community cleanup projects, the work is the first concerted effort to refreshen the downtown area since property owners funded a mega infrastructure update through a Local Improvement District about 18 years ago.

Northam said the spruced up streetscape could have the added bonus of improving local sales if more people are feel drawn to the downtown core.

"It could entice tourists to spend more time and money to enjoy the community," she said. "I think we're going to see a big difference."

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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