On a stroll down Main Street, City Manager Chris Workman sees several examples of businesses that have improved the look and feel of Philomath’s downtown corridor.
A few have breathed new energy to some of the city’s oldest buildings through extensive renovations. Small businesses come and go for one reason or another but overall, the occupancy rate has been on the increase. Long-existing businesses still have their presence, too, an illustration of the strong relationship they have with their customers and the community.
But plenty of work remains. A particular property with high visibility on the corner of Main and South 14th continues to be an eyesore. Workman sees some downtown-area businesses as not taking full advantage of their space. A few storefront owners don’t carry regular hours or are even open at all with signs out front directing customers how to get in touch with them.
Business owners, of course, have their own bottom lines to consider and whether or not it’s a full-time endeavor. Workman has a vision for what he would like to see — a vibrant downtown that attracts pedestrian traffic.
“I think as we continue to see Philomath grow and new businesses come to town, we’ll see spots like this that will fill up and they’ll start to make better use of these spaces,” Workman said while motioning to a business that doesn't rely on walk-ins. “Even though there’s businesses in some of these spots downtown, some of them are limiting their hours and they’re really underutilized for what they could be.”
The Philomath Streetscape Improvement Project is expected to transform the area with a friendly look featuring businesses that benefit from foot traffic — getting motorists passing through town out of their cars.
“I think the streetscape project in itself is going to improve the aesthetics of the downtown. It’s also going to improve the safety of the downtown,” said Workman, who has managed the city since 2014. “I think those two combined are what’s going to draw more people to the downtown area. They’re going to feel safer, it’s going to look nicer, it’ll be more of a draw for people.”
The impact will be felt by businesses in more than one way.
“As more people are down and around downtown, it’s going to increase the property values,” Workman said. “The down side of that is it may force out some of these smaller businesses that just have a sign up but it’s going to encourage new businesses into the downtown that are going to cater to pedestrian friendly downtown, which is what we want.”
Another factor from rising property values involves the city’s increment tax financing.
“As property values go up, property taxes go up as well and that new property revenue goes to pay off the debt that you took on for the Streetscape Improvement Project," he said. "By the time it’s paid for and done, your property values are much higher than where they were before you started the project.”
In general, Philomath’s downtown runs on Main Street from 14th to 12th, although that can be debated depending on the point of view, especially on the east end. The city’s commercial zoning designation (C1) identifies downtown as 14th to 12th and a half block up and down from Main Street to the alleyways.
The C1 designation keeps certain businesses out of the downtown core, such as an auto dealership, for example.
“In the downtown core, the zoning is geared toward pedestrian-friendly, pedestrian-oriented businesses … your restaurants, your banks, your service districts, your retail shops,” Workman said. “That’s what the code encourages with some of those restrictions. For the most part, that’s what we have with just a few exceptions — some empty lots and maybe some underutilized spaces.”
But what about that streetscape project? Workman said it’s scheduled to begin in 2021.
“We’ve got commitments from ODOT (Oregon Department of Transportation) and they’re hammering out an MOU (memorandum of understanding) right now that will come to the city for approval,” Workman said. “They’ve got $3.7 million that they have to spend and they’ve got to spend it on this project — it’s earmarked for this project.”
The streetscape project has been in the works for several years.
“The city has roughly $6 million of Urban Renewal dollars that we’ve got to spend on the project,” Workman added. “We’ve spent the last couple of years getting the commitment from ODOT and scoping the project to fit within that budget.”
The streetscape project area on Main runs from 14th to halfway between 12th and 11th and on Applegate, covers that same area but continues further on all the way down to Seventh as the city envisions a new west entrance to the city. The blocks that connect Main and Applegate are also included.
“It is a very exciting thing and I know there’s a lot of disappointment that it’s been delayed several times,” said Shelley Niemann, the executive director for the Philomath Area Chamber of Commerce. “It will make a tremendous difference so we’re all very excited for that to take place.”
Benton County, which owns 13th Street in the downtown core, will make improvements utilizing $520,000 in Transportation Improvement Project dollars. Workman said the work will include widening sidewalks, angled parking spaces and other work to blend the Applegate-Main connector in with the rest of the downtown.
Niemann said she’s seen the downtown business presence changing rapidly over the last two years.
“We used to have a lot of empty building space and I know when the Downtown Association was in existence and active, they tried really hard to fill some of those building spaces and they would sit empty for the longest time and then we just saw this surge a couple of years ago and now it’s been one right after the other coming in,” she said.
Niemann is very involved in the community not only through her chamber duties but also as a mother, school board member and in a household that includes her mayor husband. As such, she has insight on the relationships that exist between businesses and impact on other facets of the community.
“It’s almost like a cycle where we support business owners that in turn support Philomath,” she said. “We’re such a small town that we’re all integrated in that way. So we support our businesses that in turn employ our residents or pay taxes to our city and all of us support our local schools, and there are lots of volunteers that come forward and support our organizations and those businesses are also helping through donations.”
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For a business looking at Philomath, it won’t be a challenge to become involved in the community. And that could ultimately could be a good thing when it comes to the bottom line.
“It’s just the nature of a small town and hopefully that’s attractive to businesses that are coming in, too,” Niemann said. “Because I think it makes you feel very welcomed and very involved. You’re not just in your own little world of your business.”
Businesses have come and gone in the downtown corridor for various reasons, but some of the biggest renovation challenges have been tackled by visionary entrepreneurs.
“We’ve seen some of the harder ones, like CD&J, which took a pretty substantial amount of money and effort to get that renovated,” Workman said. “It was for sale for a long, long time … the owner went in and out of the market with it but once they got the buyer that was willing to invest the money, they opened up the Dizzy Hen.”
The downtown continues to see changes from month to month. Nomads & Settlers, a boutique store, is one of the newer additions. Nearby, a husband and wife who had been working out of their home will move their software engineering and ceramics businesses into the space that had most recently been a solar panels store.
Niemann obviously knows the business community well through her chamber position and hears about comings and goings, as well as those that are considering selling because of things like retirement.
“I would say with the rental retail space, it is definitely getting low,.” Niemann said. “There’s no doubt about that and I think we’re even somewhat hurting for buildable, large space, like if you were going to think in terms of a grocery store.”
The return of a grocery store would be welcomed by many in town.
“We need to be a more economically successful community in order to attract a larger retail store, a larger grocery store that wants to come in and build or whatever it is,” Niemann said. “We’re definitely on that upward slope that we haven’t been on for quite some time.”
With the demand in place, Workman believes the downtown corridor will become more lively with businesses investing more through strategies such as expanded hours.
“As demand goes up, the cost of owning a business in downtown Philomath is going to increase, so you’re going to see more businesses downtown that are going to be able to be open for longer hours, be open on the weekend even,” he said. “They’re going to need to be to be able to make it pencil out on paper.”
Workman said that if businesses are considering Philomath, the time to get in would be now.
“It’s never going to be more affordable than it is now,” Workman said. “I see with the population going up and the streetscape project coming through, that’s going to improve the look and the safety aspects of downtown that are a challenge right now. I think when those come in, property values are going to go up and rents are going to go up and it’ll just be more expensive to be in town. Now is a good time to get in, get established, get open for business.”
Workman said he hears from a business owner looking at opening a spot or relocating from a neighboring city three to six times per month — at least from those with serious inquiries.
The city has a site plan review process in place that comes into play whenever a new tenant comes into an existing structure. Various areas are looked at, such as landscaping, parking, building renovations, public safety and compliance with the ADA access guidelines.
The 2007 couplet project angered a lot of business owners and residents in Philomath at the time with the one-way streets. Some still have hard feelings toward ODOT with views that the couplet ruined the town, that Philomath would never be the same again.
“I think it’s made it difficult for some businesses in the couplet when you only have exposure going one direction,” Workman said. “Turning into your location makes it a little bit more difficult depending on which side of the road you’re on. There are pros and cons.”
Workman said in his 5-1/2 years in Philomath, he’s been hearing less and less concern about it.
“The businesses that come to town today don’t say, ‘oh, I wish you didn’t have a couplet running through the middle of your downtown.’ They don’t know any different, that’s just the way it is,” Workman said.
Although it was before her time with the chamber, Niemann remembers the couplet project causing some businesses to either go through a long period of hardship or go under completely.
“I think that has hurt businesses in a lot of ways,” Niemann said. “I don’t think it any longer has an impact on attracting new business because everybody’s gotten used to it, but certainly once up a time, it was (an issue) when the couplet first went in.”
The now-defunct Philomath Downtown Association implemented an effort to put up informational signs pointing motorists in the right direction for participating businesses. That continues through the city with a $200 fee that pays for staff time and materials.
Niemann believes Philomath has a lot to offer business owners thinking about relocating or establishing a start-up.
“We have a great community that is very supportive both of businesses, organizations and our residents,” Niemann said. “So, whenever a new business does come into town, the chamber and other businesses come together and try to support that so that they can feel welcome and be successful.”
After a pause, she added: “Plus it’s a friendly town.”