Before Ray and Lisa Pyle, owners of Catlin Properties Inc., purchased their new office in downtown Kelso, only three of the building’s nine third story apartments were leased. And the first floor commercial space had been vacant for a long time.
“I don’t think people knew this building was here,” Ray Pyle said Tuesday.
Two years and $1 million later, the 92-year-old building at 110 S. Third Ave. is fully occupied.
Pyle said he chose to invest in downtown Kelso because he sees potential. He is among a core group of business owners and city officials who want to revive the area but continue to face inertia and negative attitudes toward the downtown.
“A vibrant downtown contributes greatly to a community sense of identity and increases community pride,” City Manager Steve Taylor said Thursday. “The downtown can be a great incubator for small businesses, which helps with employment for your community. Also it encourages people to shop local so … the money that’s spent there remains in the community.”
However, Kelso’s downtown has a ways to go. Mike Karnofski, a Kelso City Councilman and member of the Cowlitz Economic Development Council (CEDC), said the downtown area has struggled since the Three Rivers Mall sucked away retailers in the 1980s and construction of the new Allen Street Bridge in 2001 eliminated two blocks of commercial space.
“Now you have an area that’s pretty depressed and sort of downtrodden,” Karnofski said.
When Pyle first told people he wanted to move Catlin Properties from West Kelso to downtown Kelso, where he had grown up, he encountered a lot of skepticism.
“People had an opinion … that’s not true: That you can’t have a viable business in downtown Kelso. They didn’t know any better,” he said.
Amy LaFave, owner of LaFavorites fine yarn shop, said she moved her business from Cowlitz Way to 204 S. Pacific Ave. primarily to spark other retailers to follow her into the downtown. Five years later, that hasn’t happened, she said.
Both LaFave and Pyle have invested significant personal finances into improving their new business spaces. The Pyles have constructed four office spaces, a conference room and a break room with a kitchen. They also added a 1,000 square-foot studio apartment on the second floor.
When she moved to her new location, LaFave repainted her space and put down new flooring. She also spent her own money to clean up the Kelso Commons Park next to her business, which had been overgrown, she said.
“Any improvements in the cosmetic look — people notice that and it makes it more appealing to spend time down here. But when you have old, dilapidated buildings, that’s not attractive at all to spend time here,” she said.
To improve the look and accessibility of the downtown, the city has conducted a number of street repair projects, Taylor said. The city recently finished repaving South Pacific Avenue, which runs in front of City Hall. And the current project on Grade Street will include biking and pedestrian safety improvements, he said.
The city purchased new banners and installed signs directing visitors to significant locations like City Hall and the historic train depot. The city also plans to improve lighting and sidewalks on Ash and Oak streets, which are “gateways” to the downtown, he said.
“You want people to feel safe if they’re out of their cars walking along heavily traveled streets. It definitely creates a more inviting atmosphere for pedestrian traffic,” Taylor said.
Downtown business owners can also apply for federal loans through the city, called the facade improvement program, which is a 5-year interest-deferred loan for exterior building upgrades. Property owners can use the loan to fix up their buildings and they don’t have to repay the loan or pay interest for the first five years, Taylor said. It’s a revolving fund, so when the city is repaid, it can then loan those funds out to other businesses.
The Kelso Theater Pub, which used the loan to redo the marquee and improve the exterior walls, is the only business to use the facade improvement program in the last decade, Taylor said.
Ray Pyle said he plans to use the facade improvement program to replace the building’s original doors with new ones that look the same. He also wants to install black and white subway tiles in the outdoor entrance and “period correct” outdoor signs.
The cities in Cowlitz County are also bringing in an expert on downtowns next month to give suggestions about how they can be improved. (A story later in the month will cover this event.)
“(Kelso) is a diamond in the rough. We have such a neat history,” said Kelso resident Lindsey Cope, community engagement director with the CEDC and president of the Longview Downtowners. “If you have housing and foot traffic, it makes it attractive for commercial business and retail. Before you know it, you have a bustling area. That makes it sound like it happens over night. It doesn’t. But the potential is there.”
The first step is finding a community champion, Cope said. The Downtown Kelso Revitalization Association used to fill this role.
LaFave said she was drawn to S. Pacific Avenue in part because she wanted to be part of the downtown association. There were a dozen businesses involved with the group at the time, but it dwindled until LaFave was one of only two members. It dissolved a couple years ago, she said. Cope is looking for business owners who would participate if the group was restarted. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Pyle said a downtown association will only be successful if “helpful, hopeful people” participate.
He added that he’d like to see other businesses either breathe some new life into their buildings, or sell them to others who will.
“Some people would rather let their car sit in their driveway, not running, until it rots into the ground. I’m a firm believer that if you’re not using the car, sell it to someone who will,” Pyle said.
LaFave pointed to Castle Rock and Kalama as examples of what “cosmetic” improvements can do for a downtown. She makes special trips to both cities just to spend time there because how nice it looks, she said. Castle Rock has installed new lighting, sidewalks and flower baskets downtown to attract visitors; Kalama will soon have a new amphitheater and improved riverfront trail.
Proponents of downtown have sweeping visions for the area: Freshly painted buildings, full storefronts, bright streetlights, bustling office spaces, bike paths, riverfront access and fast trains to Portland.
“If people want to talk about downtown, come here and see what we can accomplish,” Ray Pyle said. “We are leading by example, we are putting our money where our mouth is and we’re doing something.”
Lindsey Cope said restoring downtown Kelso will also restore a sense of civic pride, which in turn can lead to cleaner public places and more community engagement.
“It sounds idealistic, but nothing is impossible if you’re consistent and you chip away at it,” Lindsey Cope said. “Longview is doing it. Castle Rock has done it. Kalama has done it. There’s no reason why Kelso can’t.”