Just like Santa Claus who has a team of elves to help him make gifts throughout the year, downtown Washington has a small, but mighty workforce whose primary goal is to keep the Main Street alive. In the era of Super Centers and big parking lots, this is not as easy task as it may seem, but Downtown Washington, Inc. has been managing it pretty well. You have heard of them for sure, but do you really know what they do? I spoke with Bridgette Epple, the Executive Director in Downtown Washington, Inc., on their past, present and future projects.
When was Downtown Washington, Inc. established?
In 1959 some of the downtown business owners started a Merchants’ Group, which in 1973 evolved into the Downtown Washington Shopping Center. Downtown Washington, Inc. was formed in 1989 when the City of Washington was selected as one of the first five pilot communities for the Missouri Main Street Program. The organization has maintained its status as a Missouri Main Street Program and as a National Main Street Community to this day. Downtown Washington Inc. was recognized in 2000, 2001 and 2002 as one of the 20 semi-finalists in the Great American Main Street Awards (GAMSA) – the highest honor a Main Street Program can receive. I am pleased to announce that we are currently working on collecting additional information for the GAMSA jury, because Downtown Washington Inc. has been selected as one of the top 10 semifinalists for 2012! We are hoping to be among the 5 winners!
What is the Main Street approach to Downtown Revitalization?
The Main Street program’s success is based on a comprehensive strategy of work, tailored to local needs and opportunities, in four broad areas called the Main Street Four Point Approach. Its four points are Design (rehabilitating historic buildings, encouraging supportive new construction, and developing long-term planning for the downtown area), Organization (building consensus and cooperation among the many groups and individuals who have a role in the revitalization process), Promotion (marketing the commercial district’s assets to customers and potential investors with the help of advertising and special events), and Economic Restructuring (strengthening the district’s existing economic base while finding ways to expand it to meet new opportunities). Downtown Washington, Inc. has different volunteer committees that focus on each of these four vital points of the Main Street Approach.
What are some of the major projects Downtown Washington, Inc. has completed?
In the early 90ies, Downtown Washington, Inc. built the parking lot on the corner of Main and Elm Streets. The idea was not only to provide parking spaces downtown, but also to serve as a place to host outdoor events. We renovated the cabin on the corner of 2nd and Jefferson Streets, which until recently served as our office. It was built in 1834 and it is the oldest standing structure in town. In 2006 Downtown Washington, Inc. partnered with the City of Washington and the Chamber of Commerce in the realization of the Farmers’ Market project. Our latest, and probably biggest project so far, is the renovation of the Downtown Post Office. In 2009 we got the word that they would be closing the Post Office, and after a lot of phone calls and meetings with USPS we got the permission to operate as a Contract Postal Unit. All members of Downtown Washington, Inc. were physically involved in all the work needed to renovate the building to its original state. It was not an easy project, but it was worth it. We set a national example among the Main Street Programs throughout the country, and many of them are seeking our advice on how to save their downtown postal units.
I know you organize a lot of events throughout the year in order to promote the downtown area. Could you mention some of them?
We just wrapped up the year with our Holiday Events. The second weekend before Thanksgiving we held the Holiday Shopping Open House, where store owners open their doors for special hours and offer customers a relaxed environment to view their holiday items. The Friday after Thanksgiving marked the official start of the holiday season with Santa’s arrival at the Holiday Parade Of Lights. If you have missed these events, don’t despair – we will have them again next year. In 2012 you we all look forward to the Main Street BBQ & Bluesfest which takes place the third weekend in April on Main Street. This event features over 50 teams that will compete to win the title of Grand Champion. April also marks the start of Sunset on the Riverfront: live music, great food and some drinks, too. It is held on the fourth Thursday of each month during April, May, June, July, August and September at the Rennick Riverfront Park. In May we hold the Fine Art Fair and Winefest, which always gathers a great crowd. After the hot summer it is time for the Chili Cook-Off, always held on a Friday. Each year features a new theme, with over 40 teams competing for Best Chili and Best Decorated Booth. Right after the Chili Cook-Off, the streets of historic downtown Washington come alive with arts and crafts. The Fall Festival of the Arts & Crafts has been very successful, and it provides a wonderful opportunity to get your Christmas shopping done early. The fastival is not complete without the Strassenfest: live German music, food and microbrewery beer. For more information on these events, and how you could participate in them you can always refer to our website.
Organizing all these festivals and events sounds like a lot of work. How do you manage to do it all? Can people get involved?
It is never easy, but we try to be as efficient as possible. We have work plans for every project we embark on, which are useful to keep us on track. Downtown Washington, Inc. depends strongly on volunteers, and we are lucky that our community is always willing to lend a helping hand. Some people prefer to assist with the special events we organize, others like to help in the office, and we can always use a volunteer or two. Individuals or families can join our Friends Program, and invest in the success of our mission “To promote an attractive and financially stable downtown while preserving our resources and enriching the community.”
One of the reasons my husband and I moved to Washington was the lively downtown area, which reminded me of Europe. Unfortunately, this is not the case in many other small town communities in the USA. The big box stores have replaced the locally owned shops, and the family restaurants have surrendered to the fast food chains. Bringing people back to the downtown can be a challenge. What keeps you going?
We believe that small projects make a big difference. A single event cannot revitalize the downtown area. It takes an ongoing series of initiatives to build community support and create lasting progress. Changing the attitudes and habits of the people is essential to bring about a commercial renaissance. Quality is our main goal, in everything we do. Locals and tourists come to downtown for the unique personalized shopping and dining experience. We try to support and encourage the merchants in any way we can. The Downtown Washington, Inc. Gift Certificate Program was developed as a means of keeping shoppers in Washington. Each year $50,000 worth of gift certificates are purchased and they can only be redeemed at member businesses. They make for a great gift for everyone: friends, relatives, employees, teachers, etc. The gift certificates can be purchased at the Downtown Post Office. Our initiatives have had some great response among the community, and everything we do is always welcomed with lots of support. Getting where you want to be is never easy, but it is the good things we stumble upon along the way that keep us going.