I grew up in a tiny town about five miles from a small city at the heart of which bustled a thriving downtown. My mom worked downtown and about once a month she would instruct my sister and I to call a taxi and meet her there when she got off work. We’d have dinner together in a restaurant that was also a gift shop and pharmacy, then head out to walk the length of those busy downtown blocks. There were two multi-level department stores. In one, I learned to ride an escalator, and in the other, likely took my first elevator ride. In between, the blocks were packed with boutiques, along with a cake shop, a candy store, a pizza joint, restaurants and bars, a corner bank fronted by a sidewalk that looked to be sprinkled with diamond dust, and a taxi stand, where you picked up a red phone and were instantly connected to the dispatch. In the winter, Santa’s village filled a parking lot and in the summer, the downtown streets hosted the annual parades. We didn’t go downtown just to pick up some needed item; we went to eat, to shop, to browse, to be two sisters with their mom – in those hours, just three girls, really. We went for the experience.
But I would have never thought to name it that if it hadn’t been for my conversation with Sierra Lauder, director of events and downtown development for the Tillamook Chamber of Commerce, about the project underway in Tillamook.
The $38.2 million downtown revitalization project is designed to widen streets, replace bridges, create a town plaza and streetscapes, enhance pedestrian and bicycle access and safety, and generally transform this once thriving, long-since declining downtown.
“We want visitors to recognize that downtown is an experience,” says Lauder, “You’re not going to drive through really quickly, but rather make it a destination the same way you would the Cheese Factory. It’s worth exploring downtown in that same kind of way.”
In the early years of the 20th century, Tillamook’s downtown bustled with department stores, bars, hotels, hardwood and dry good stores. Then, says Gary Albright, director of the Tillamook Pioneer Museum, Bayocean, the resort meant to be the Atlantic City of the west, failed, the county suffered four burns, each six years apart and each claiming hundreds of thousands of acres, and important institutions that once called the downtown home, moved to the fringes of the city. Before long, downtown was a faded few blocks of decrepit storefronts and empty spaces.
But now the dream of bringing back that old luster is becoming a reality. There’s the awesome new plaza, a thriving Saturday market and a string of year ‘round events that promise to keep the streets humming.
But the truth is, right now, with construction about to enter its third year, it’s a little rough on local businesses.
“It really is an evolving little economic community, but I will tell you that it is hard to feel that on the street right now,” says Lauder. “You walk into a business and you are very aware of how it hurts. The businesses that are able to zoom out and see the picture outside the moment, see that we are hurting for a cause. That’s really been the story.”
But the most important story visitors need to hear is that while the streets are colored with orange tape, heavy equipment and construction crews, it really is still business as usual.
“There is parking to the west, several parking lots,” Lauder says. “You can easily have lunch at the Pelican and then walk into the downtown core and explore all the little shops. They have amazing gift and hand-crafted items. There are so many unexpected treasures downtown.”
Of course, construction won’t last forever. It’s already about two-thirds finished with completion set for 2018, and when that day comes, Lauder already has a vision of just how it will be.
“It means that I can go downtown and maybe meet my friend and walk around, have a coffee, find something unique, and every dollar I spend is investing in an experience. Whatever gift I buy has a good experience attached to it. I have gone and found a treasure from an experience. That is really the take away. It’s creating a community and a culture and an experience within the downtown.”
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.