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Downtown Dallas Revitalization

Push is on to spruce up Dallas' core retail district

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Chelsea Pope and Brian Dalton are part of a group behind efforts to bring new life to downtown Dallas.

DALLAS -- Behind the scenes, residents and business owners who love Dallas are plotting.

These Dallas crusaders have dreams of revitalizing the downtown core to make it more functional for the community, draw visitors and improve the town's overall livability.

According to the City of Dallas Survey in April 2008, 89 percent of residents support the revitalization of downtown. Only 7 percent did not support the concept; 4 percent had no opinion.

"People in Dallas really seem to want a great downtown and we're working on that," City Council President Brian Dalton said.

Dalton was born and raised in Dallas. His family owned a successful furniture store and fondly remembers a downtown Dallas that was thriving in the 1930s and 1940s.

Dalton said he remembers shopping downtown at men's clothing stores, furniture stores, car dealerships, hardware stores, and having a blast with friends at the Blue Garden Restaurant. Dalton said residents would stroll along the sidewalks and shop for Christmas presents.

Today, even if the weather is sunny, the picture of downtown is very different.

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Dalton said the area began to change in the 1960s. Shopping malls became popular and the road to Salem was improved, making it easier to head out of town.

Bob Wilson, a member of the Dallas Planning Commission, was a one-time manager at J.C. Penney Co. in Dallas and also worked for the company in Salem. He remembers the transition at that time. He noticed businesses moving because they needed more space or owners retiring with no opportunity to pass those stores on.

"The next generation wasn't there to participate and businesses were changing," Wilson said. "Put the combination together and you have an exodus (from downtown)."

This shift was not only in Dallas, but happened to small downtowns all over the country, Wilson said.

Dalton said Dallas actually began making downtown look as though it were a mall and more modern. He said the courthouse annex was built and sheet metal and barn boards replaced Victorian-era elements.

Despite the ghostlike feeling it had developed, Wilson said the area never died.

"Downtown didn't die," Wilson said. "Portions of it might have changed, but it didn't die."

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Dallas City Councilman Wes Scroggin said the push to revitalize the downtown core began about 10 years ago. Many storefronts were vacant and property needed repairs, making it an undesirable area to shop or own a business.

The city, the Dallas Area Chamber of Commerce and many volunteers made the decision to show the downtown a bit of love and care.

"It boils down to livability and making Dallas a better place," Scroggin said.

Dalton created a cleanup crew and the city fixed code issues and offered incentives to business owners. Incentives included facade loans and murals to spruce up buildings and motivate owners to take care of their buildings.

Tax increment financing as part of the city's Urban Renewal District was collected and spent on capital projects such as starting the planning process for a new streetscape and helping to purchase the pocket park by Rickreall Creek next to Arctic Circle on Main Street.

Gradually, some vacancies filled, and the work to bring people back to downtown continues.

John Swanson, the city's commercial area redevelopment manager, headed the Downtown Task Force created last October. The task force's mission was to identify ways to improve the area.

The city will continue to launch incentives this year for business owners.

"Downtown is where we see the need and where we need to spend the resources," Swanson said.

In January, the task force recommended local business owners create a Downtown Association. The hope is that the owners will unite and put some positive peer pressure on one another to take care of their buildings.

The project in the works that may have the most impact is the new streetscape design. Swanson said the new design of Main Street from the top of Mill Street to Washington Street will calm traffic and encourage drivers to stop and shop. He said he hopes this will help the community see Main Street as a user-friendly pedestrian zone once again.

Swanson has been working closely with Chelsea Pope, the director of the chamber, to unite businesses and plan community events such as Summerfest and the annual Christmas Tree lighting ceremony to bring people - residents and nonresidents - into the downtown area. They are focusing also on the assets the area already has.

"People are building new cities that look at what we've got," Pope said.

The movie theater, amphitheater, grocery store and the Polk County Courthouse provide opportunities to draw people into town. However, the consensus is downtown could use more retail shops that shoppers can browse in. The city cannot kick out the shops already in place, but Pope said the stores will go through their life cycles and more browsable, or retail friendly, shops could move in.

The city may look into creating a vacant building ordinance that would require insurance and upkeep to ensure accountability for downtown spaces, Dalton said.

Bob Brixius' jewelry store on Main Street has been run by his family for 50 years. He said the city's incentive programs are helpful, but what the downtown really needs is more retail.

"We have (a lot of) beauty parlors in two blocks and not much in the way of retail," Brixius said.

He said his business has remained viable because of its longevity and that he offers retail and service.

The area needs to attract the right mix of retail downtown while retaining the best, most viable merchants and looking for new types of retail, he said.

"Downtowns are Darwinian," Dalton said. "It's survival of the fittest."

Pope is trying to draw Oregon's touted wine industry into the downtown to attract more visitors. However, she said wine shops need a strong retail base and people traveling to Dallas to spend time in the town.

In the streetscape plan, grape vines will hang over arches at intersections trying to work in the winery theme into downtown.

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Janette Sinclair opened her restaurant L'Attitude Point One last fall on the corner of Main and Court streets. She said that there is a great deal of outside money that could be courted with culinary tourism, according to her experiences. She said she has had customers from Portland, Salem, McMinnville, Corvallis and Eugene who hopped in the car just to try out her Dallas restaurant.

"This downtown is adorable," Sinclair said. "And it could be so much more attractive with a little lipstick - a little TLC."

She said she opened in Dallas understanding that the town is in the beginning stages of making a full comeback. Sinclair can see it thriving like downtowns in McMinnville or Newberg in the future.

However, a roadbump on the way to revitalization is the vacant spaces, predominantly on Court Street. Brixius said downtown has had trouble filling spaces because of out-of-town owners who do not understand the economy of the area. And those who may be able to pay higher rent, retail franchises for example, do not have an interest in downtown Dallas as it does not have the foot traffic found at shopping malls in the region.

"The days of mom-and-pop retail stores are fewer and farther between," Brixius said.

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In 10 years, the new streetscape will be complete in downtown Dallas. The downtown crusaders also have their own ideas about what the town will look like at that time.

Sinclair said she would love to see a chocolatier or kitchen gadget shop to grab the culinary tourists.

Wilson said he sees a downtown where people not only shop along the ground floor, but also live above the stores. The town will be quaint, cozy, attractive and a fun place to visit, he said.

Scroggin said he expects the skyline to look the same, but the area will be clean and more pedestrian friendly. It will be easier to come downtown and walk, and parking will be better.

Pope said she would love to see shoppers checking out umbrellas and shopping bags at the chamber office and strolling down Main Street. The storefronts would be full with a variety of businesses and the area will look very different.

Swanson said there will be more community events, one each month, and self-guided walking tours of the historical buildings downtown. Also, the improvements of Main Street will have had a snowball effect and side streets will improve their buildings as well.

Dalton, who remembers Dallas as a town with a population of 5,000, said he expects the city will grow from its current figure of more than 15,000 to 25,000 or more in his lifetime, which could create opportunities downtown. There will be more shops, customers, restaurants and specialty products.

However, these changes will certainly not be overnight. Dalton said he knows people are anxious for what may be around the bend, but the progress is going slowly because of budget restrictions and the need for a consensus before big changes happen.

Scroggin agreed and said changes need to move forward at a steady pace for the community's sake.

"It needs to keep moving, but at a pace people can understand and feel comfortable with," Scroggin said. "And Dallas isn't terrible now. But to keep it nice, we will have to work at it."

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