Task Force gives downtown Dayton shot in arm

This 1991 photo shows Main Street in Dayton as it was being readied for a new concrete surface.

This 1991 photo shows Main Street in Dayton as it was being readied for a new concrete surface.

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Thirty years ago, Marcene Hendrickson said her son would cover his eyes when the family drove down Main Street in Dayton.

When she asked him why, he responded, “Because it’s ugly.”

That comment pushed Hendrickson to attend a town hall meeting focused on revitalizing Dayton.

“When you live someplace, you sometimes don’t see things. What he said made me open my eyes,” she said.

Out of that meeting, the Dayton Development Task Force was born. The all-volunteer group has been the force behind many of Dayton’s improvements over the past few decades, including Main Street revitalization, renovation of the historic Liberty Theater and construction of a park on Commercial Street.

Now, it is seeking to continue Dayton’s growth by participating in a state incentive program that allows local businesses to claim a tax credit for their utility or B&O taxes in exchange for contributions to the Task Force.

Hendrickson has been on the Task Force’s board for 30 years, but after that first meeting, she didn’t think she’d stick around so long. With a job and kids at home, she thought she’d help with a small project — building a park on an abandoned lot downtown — and then go back to her day-to-day life.

Volunteers worked hard on the 1983 project, putting down grass and other improvements to create Flour Mill Park. Six weeks after they’d thought of the idea, the park was done.

After finishing, the group realized that in its enthusiasm, it had neglected to figure out who would pay water bills or keep the grass mowed.

“We learned a big lesson,” said Hendrickson.

The newly formed task force opened a bank account and became a nonprofit so it could better organize future projects. And Banner Bank purchased the park, ensuring that it would be maintained in the future.

Hendrickson ended up filling in for a friend on the board before joining as a regular board member, a position she’s held for 30 years.

“It was a passion. And when it’s a passion, you find time,” she said.

Thirty years into Dayton’s revitalization, it’s clear the Task Force’s work is paying off.

Unemployment in Columbia County decreased from 13 percent in 1990 to a low of 6.6 percent in 2007, before climbing closer to 10 percent following the Great Recession, according to the state Employment Security Department. The county has stabilized its population and has a 1.1 percent 10-year average annual growth rate in the accommodation and food services industry, according to Washington’s Employment Security Department.

Perhaps most importantly, driving down Main Street doesn’t inspire people to cover their eyes. Local businesses showcase food and wine from around the county, trees line the sidewalks and historic buildings look well cared for.

“It has far exceeded all of our expectations,” said Bette Lou Crothers, president of the Task Force’s board. “I never dreamed that we’d be at the place we are now.”

In celebration of its 30th anniversary, the Task Force was honored at the Dayton Chamber of Commerce Awards Banquet on Thursday.

Along with Hendrickson, Port of Columbia Manager Jennie Dickinson, who is also board member, spoke about the group’s work and economic development in the county, and attendees saw dozens of before-and-after pictures of Dayton’s Main Street.

A less determined group of volunteers might rest on its laurels, but Crothers and Hendrickson said there’s always more work to do.

The latest accomplishment is enrolling the Task Force in Washington’s Main Street Tax Credit program, which allows businesses that pay B&O and public utility taxes to claim a credit for donating to an eligible Main Street organization.

Under the program, businesses anywhere in Washington can make a donation to one of about 30 approved downtown organizations operating in towns with fewer than 100,000 people. Each organization can collect up to $133,333.33 per year, and businesses that donate can claim a tax credit the following year equal to 75 percent of their donations.

The program was created by the Legislature in 2005 and spearheaded by state Sen. Bill Grant, who represented the Walla Walla Valley. When initially created, it required a downtown organization to have paid staff in order to participate, but that rule changed near the end of last year, so the Task Force set to work on an application for Dayton.

Though it was approved only in September, Hendrickson said the Task Force has already collected $4,600 in donations from local businesses. Through more publicity, she’s confident that number can increase.

“We’re small, but we’re optimistic. We get good support,” she said.

For its first two decades, the Task Force operated on a budget of about $300 per year, to pay for printing and copies.

After receiving an award in 2006, it has been able to set up maintenance funds for completed projects, but day-to-day operations are still conducted with almost no overhead.

Hendrickson said funds from donations through the tax credit program will go toward doing more work around town. The board hasn’t decided specifics yet, but further improvements on Commercial Street are high on its list.

Looking back, Hendrickson said she’s most struck by the amount an ordinary group of people was able to accomplish for Dayton.

“There were no special people,” she said. “Just a feel and a passion and a willing(ness) to put in some time.”

Rachel Alexander can be reached at rachelalexander@wwub.com or 509-526-8363.

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