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Digging out of a rut

DALLAS — Downtown Dallas in recent years seems to be going through a two steps forward, one step back dance.    Just a year ago, Main Street featured three restaurants serving a variety of cuisine, a bar, a bookstore, a bike shop, several antique stores, and a specialty gift shop. Add to that, Main Street was preparing to undergo an Urban Renewal Agency-funded street improvement project.    Now, the bar, Tilted, the bike shop, Electric Peddler, and one of the restaurants, Tiga, are closed. The bookstore, Paperback Paradise, and gift shop, Plain & Fancy, will be closing soon.    The reasons for the closures vary — from high rental costs, to lack of foot traffic, to owners retiring — but the result is the same: a downtown core dotted with empty storefronts.    Bright spots remain and new ventures are in the works, but business owners and city officials alike believe more needs to be done to restore vitality to Dallas' city center.    Dallas made a first step last year, enrolling in the Oregon Main Street Program, an initiative of the Oregon Parks & Recreation Department's State Historic Preservation Office.    The next step may be forming a downtown association, comprised of business and building owners. Latitude One Restaurant & Gallery will host a meeting Thursday afternoon to gauge interest in the idea.   Marlene Cox, the owner of Latitude, believes a downtown association could better represent the unique needs of the district.    "There are two Dallases, North Dallas and downtown," she said. "They have different types of business and have different needs. We need to have a separate organization to represent downtown."    She said in partnership with the city and Dallas Area Chamber of Commerce, a downtown association could focus on marketing — particularly through social media — business recruitment and business retention.    She said a downtown association could provide information about available space, host new community events and create a website touting downtown attractions and activities. Cox added, however, that much depends on collaboration.    "We have to start banding together," she said. "We need to be able to talk to each other and brainstorm."   Dallas Mayor Brian Dalton said during meetings he had with downtown merchants before Main Street construction began last fall, he found strong interest in the idea of establishing an association. Brian Dalton   While the city and the chamber would be removed from the process, Dalton said he thinks having an association could benefit the city as a whole.      "Many of who work with the city believe it would be very productive and be another voice at the table that's very, very important to the future of our city," Dalton said.   "The city, the chamber, and the Dallas Economic Development Commission, all three of us, have a big emphasis on economic development and a thriving downtown is big piece of that."   Downtown has a long way to go before it could be considered "thriving," at least in Paperback Paradise owner Ray Stellingwerf's opinion.    Stellingwerf is closing his store and moving it to Lincoln City. His last day will be Feb. 22. He said lack of foot traffic, particularly during and after the street improvement construction, is the reason he is closing. Photo by Jolene Guzman Ryan Engichy, a cook at Ugo’s Pizza Parlor on Main Street, prepares a pizza Monday night. Ugo’s is among a collection of long-term businesses open in downtown Dallas.    Even without that disruption, Stellingwerf said his isn't sure downtown was the place for his bookstore, which opened on Mill Street in 2011 and moved to Main Street in 2012.   "I honestly don't see how one (a bookstore) could make it in Dallas without being on Ellendale," he said.    Dalton, on the other hand, sees potential, noting a new restaurant and wine and coffee bar are set to open soon downtown.    "We have a few empty buildings now, but it is less than what we've had in the past," he said. "And I anticipate them filling up this spring and summer."   Sheri Stuart, the Main Street Program coordinator, will be leading the discussion at Thursday's meeting. She said the program was designed to assist cities facing the very challenges plaguing Dallas' core.    Stuart has worked with similar programs in Washington, as well as on a national level, and has seen downtowns that were the victim of changing economies, structural decline and lack of investment over the years gradually reinvent themselves.   "I think a community like Dallas is originally what this program was formed to assist," she said.    She said often a strong downtown association is the missing piece needed to pinpoint the region's assets, as well as areas needing improvement. With that guidance, the Main Street Program can provide technical assistance with marketing plans, building improvements and finding ways to productively reuse old buildings.   Stuart added people may question the energy and money spent on revitalizing a slumping city center, but in her experience, the commitment is worth it.    "Traditional downtowns are the heart of the community," she said. "If the heart is strong, the rest of the community will be a lot stronger ... business attraction, job retention, all of those things stem from a strong and vital downtown."    Learn More   What: Downtown Dallas Association interest meeting.   When: Thursday, 3 p.m.   Where: Latitude Restaurant & Gallery, 904 Main St., Dallas.    


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