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Unique downtown gets ready for next step

By SHERRY BOHN

Special to the News

We’ve all heard the talk — and many of us feel directly affected — about ominous economic trends that are out of the control of the common business owner. A sluggish economy, big boxes and destination attractions are some of the issues facing Hood River today. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Yet there is a practical way to have a positive impact: support your downtown.

Downtown Hood River is in a unique position to defy outward threats. Downtown is vibrant. It is loaded with a variety of shops. It is filled with restaurants that appeal to almost every taste. Downtown is full of sights and things to do, from the International Museum of Carousel Art to the Mount Hood Railroad, from Veterans Overlook Memorial Park to Hood River Saturday Market. Downtown is full of modern amenities. Recent urban renewal improvements are complemented perfectly by downtown’s abundant historical charms. And, downtown is full of merchants who put their customer first.

Though downtown Hood River isn’t always full with customers, the foot traffic is getting stronger. Response by local residents and visitors to First Friday art events has been tremendous. Other activities timed for the holidays and special events like Harvest Fest and the recent Pear and Wine Festival help attract shoppers. The Hood River Downtown Business Association and its Downtown Coordinator, Joanie Thomson, have worked together to help organize these promotions.

Downtown has carved a special niche. Hood River is a rare community; it has a downtown we can all be proud of. Other towns recognize this. Have you seen the recent improvements in surrounding communities like The Dalles, Bingen and Stevenson? They all took their lead from our own downtown.

Downtown’s success is no accident. Thanks to financial support from the Mt. Hood Economic Alliance, the Oregon Investment Board, the City of Hood River and the Hood River County Visitors Council, the downtown — through the Hood River Downtown Business Association — has an organization devoted to its well-being. In addition to working on downtown promotion, the Downtown Business Association has a voice in important city issues, like downtown parking. It is an advocate for downtown business goals and positions in city, county and state issues that affect downtown. There is a unified, influential voice on downtown policies, legislative decisions, streetscape issues, safety and beautification.

Thanks to the Downtown Business Association, the downtown has fostered cooperative, positive relationships with a variety of local groups, including the Columbia Gorge Arts and Culture Council, Saturday Market, Hood River County Visitors Association, Hood River County Chamber of Commerce, the Fruit Loop and the new Heights Business Association.

There’s a common thread running through all this downtown advocacy: Developing and promoting a healthy and prosperous downtown, rich in culture, history and livability for both residents of Hood River and guests. That happens to be the Downtown Business Association’s mission statement, too.

The current system of support, however, has an expiration date. The four groups mentioned above offered their assistance and their money during the past year with the understanding that the Downtown Business Association and the programs it develops will be self-sufficient by the end of 2002. It’s time for downtown to take that next step.

In the first half of this year, the Downtown Business Association developed two funding strategies, and we’re asking for the support of all downtown professionals, business and property owners to help us with their implementation. We introduced the concept of a Business Improvement District at a May 1 Town Hall Meeting and were delighted with the response. A handful of downtown business owners have already supported a $75 annual fee to help with continuing an organized downtown. We’re currently meeting with property owners to help us launch an Economic Development District, which will raise funds through building assessments. The cost for participation is relatively small, yet the money will leverage much more promotion though cooperative, concerted marketing than a single business could afford on its own.

The Downtown Business Association has enjoyed early, positive response about both of these programs. For them to succeed, though, we need universal support. Downtown’s special niche is the result of a community of downtown professionals, merchants and leaders coming together to develop something exceptional. Their continued support will keep downtown unique.

There’s something else that is unique about our downtown. Members of the volunteer Downtown Business Association board of directors are always saying they have a passion about Hood River’s downtown. It’s no wonder: Most are downtown business owners. We believe that every other businessperson or property owner shares this passion, and we hope they act on that enthusiasm by supporting the downtown programs already in place and by working with their neighbors to build for the future.

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Sage’s Café owner Sherry Bohn is president of the Hood River Downtown Business Association and a Hood River Port Commissioner. For more information about the group’s Business Improvement District and Economic Improvement District strategies, send an e-mail to downtown@gorge.net.

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