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Thomson helps create vitality in downtown Hood River

Hood River’s downtown has become a showpiece in the past few years. Bronze salmon leap up the falls at the top of 2nd Street. Handsome, old-fashioned street lights illuminate the night and signs adorn historic buildings telling colorful stories of their past.

But there’s more to downtown’s revitalization than just physical upgrades: it’s the year-round buzz surrounding downtown. On the first Friday of each month, locals and visitors flock to the First Friday art and music celebration, turning the blocks of downtown into a street festival. Kids get creative each fall in the annual chalk art contest, which draws throngs of viewers. On Halloween, the downtown blocks are teeming with more than a thousand trick-or-treaters going store to store in the Halloween Safe Trick or Treat night. During the holidays, downtown is lit up — literally — by a downtown-wide open house and tree lighting, which in turn brings Christmas shoppers by the hundreds.

Much of the buzz is thanks to Hood River’s first-ever Hood River Downtown Business Association Coordinator, Joanie Thomson.

Thomson was hired two years ago with grant money to fill a long-needed role in the growing downtown business community. The HRDBA has been around for two decades, but the organization lacked a point person. In the spring of 2001, a town hall meeting was held, with organization members identifying a “needs” list.

“At the top of the list was a coordinator to help drive everything,” said Thomson, whose position is part-time. With a multifaceted background in careers ranging from long-time agent for a prestigious list of professional mountain bike racers to owner of Belle’s Diner in White Salmon, Thomson was hired.

She spent her first year on the job “going door to door” to find out what kind of businesses were in the downtown district — which spans from Sherman Avenue to Wasco Street, and from Front Street to 7th.

And what she found was that one-third of downtown businesses were professional firms — including attorneys, real estate companies and mortgage brokers.

“People think of downtown as just retail,” Thomson said. When asked, most owners of professional businesses told her that, just like the retailers, they wanted to be in the downtown district because of its prominence.

“This is the entrance to town,” she said. “If it’s not vital, people will get back on the freeway and keep going.”

Not long after Thomson started as coordinator of the HRDBA, local photographer Blue Ackerman came to her and the HRDBA board and suggested the downtown businesses emulate Portland’s popular First Thursday event at downtown art galleries.

“The board knew we wanted to create an event to showcase downtown as a place,” Thomson said. She and Ackerman canvassed downtown businesses about the idea, and were met with enthusiasm.

The inaugural First Friday — in which downtown businesses stay open through the evening on the first Friday of each month, hosting artists and musicians — was held in September 2001.

“You never know how many people to expect with something like that,” Thomson said. “With First Friday, it was a success from the very first one.” Along with showcasing local artists and musicians, First Friday has given downtown businesses an added boost.

“Businesses have been on board for this long because they’re seeing results,” Thomson said. Attracting large crowds to the downtown core has even had unexpected results.

“I still hear people say, ‘I never knew this was downtown,’” referring to some shop or another, Thomson said. “And they may have lived in Odell for 15 years.”

By the beginning of Thomson’s second year with the HRDBA, the organization launched a formal membership drive. With the success of First Friday and other downtown events, the organization decided to levy annual membership dues of $75 to help pay for Thomson’s time and efforts to coordinate events showcasing downtown.

The drive resulted in 105 members signing up and paying dues — about 60 percent of eligible downtown businesses. (Businesses located elsewhere that benefit from downtown events have also joined — including the Hood River Inn and Mt. Hood Meadows.) The 2003 membership drive has brought several more businesses on board.

In addition to helping coordinate First Friday, the Chalk Art Contest, the Halloween Safe Trick-or-Treat event, and the Holiday Open House and Tree Lighting, Thomson works behind the scenes to help HRDBA members. She publishes a monthly newsletter to keep members informed about upcoming events and issues that affect the downtown core. She also tackles a host of other tasks, from writing grants to hosting downtown business meetings to creating partnerships and alliances with local entities.

Recently, Thomson got a grant from the Visitors Council to market First Friday in the Portland area during the shoulder seasons — fall and spring. Along with the Hood River County Chamber of Commerce and Roomfinders (operated by the Hood River Bed and Breakfast Association), the HRDBA will advertise in The Oregonian’s A&E section and elsewhere “to get people out here in October, November and December,” Thomson said.

Thomson relishes the challenges of her job, which include “universal” issues of communication and apathy.

“One of the big challenges is involvement,” Thomson said. “There’s the question of, is Hood River a victim of its own success? Even the 105 members don’t often know what goes on outside their own doors. If they were struggling, they’d probably be more aggressive in marketing themselves.” Thomson tries to help facilitate communication not just with the organization itself but between business owners.

The successes Thomson has achieved during her first two years help steer her — and the HRDBA — into the future.

“Having a point person for the downtown association has helped raise the visibility and recognition of Hood River outside of the area,” Thomson said. “Everyone knows Hood River is great for windsurfing, but you’d be surprised how many people in Portland say, ‘Do you know about that First Friday out in Hood River?’”

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