Downtown beautification project in bloom

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City of Walla Walla employee Travis Chester hangs a flower planter on Main Street this morning. The planter is one of many put up today in the latest step of a downtown beautification program. (May 10, 2010)

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

More than three 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 were like a proverbial bow on a freshly wrapped package.

The baskets are one of the final touches on the project to clean up downtown, said Walla Walla Parks and Recreation Director Jim Dumont.

"It adds more color and vibrancy," Dumont said "It's a good investment."

The roughly $20,000 in initial flower basket costs -- including the plants, brackets and labor -- are a component of the more than $50,000 downtown overhaul. An estimated $33,000 paint bid will cover the fresh coats on 112 light poles, 23 benches, 32 trash cans and 23 bike racks from Main Street between Fourth Avenue and Palouse Street as well as the side streets along that stretch.

The city and Downtown Walla Walla Foundation partnered on the cleanup and enhancements. The work has included sidewalk and street sweeping and gum removal.

With prime weather for sidewalk seating, the flowers add another touch in an inviting streetscape to entice more local residents and visitors to linger downtown, said Jennifer Northam, the downtown foundation's events and public relations manager.

"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."

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, Dumont said. But the hope is that business owners and residents will be inspired to "adopt a basket" once they see the fruits of the beautification process. He said the city would like for volunteers to take on the baskets as their own maintenance projects.

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."

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