With cracked awnings, chipped tiles and leaky, caulk-stained windows, the old Zonich building on Oak Street near Kelso Veterans Park looks like a money pit.
But downtown expert Becky McCray sees potential in the historic building and the rest of downtown, and she says the area needs some “ninja” volunteers to help make it happen.
The Zonich building has unique geometrical patterns painted on its facade. The 6-foot tall windows could display exhibits from the Cowlitz Historical Museum or art projects from local students. The dance floor on the second story could host a 1920s “Great Gatsby” party.
“That all takes money,” owner Jim Zonich told McCray during a tour of downtown Kelso Tuesday.
“But starting tomorrow, window displays could be in these windows,” McCray countered. “Something beautiful could be in here in the meantime.”
McCray spent four days last week touring the downtowns in Cathlamet and Cowlitz County’s five cities as part of her speaking engagement at the Cowlitz Economic Development Council’s annual meeting Thursday.
Community members and city officials braved cold weather and snow to spend a couple hours in each town touring with McCray, learning what is working and absorbing ideas for boosting their business cores.
“The secret is trying out small things to find out what works so when you get to the $5 million project, you’ll know what works,” McCray told about a dozen people on a tour of Kelso on Tuesday. “What can we do right now to make downtown useful right away?”
Her answer: a lot.
To McCray, just about every surface is a potential canvas. Each window could display local sculptures, art or exhibits. The panels above windows could be brightly painted with murals.
Empty walls could be covered with posters for upcoming shows, colorful cloth or even a decorated sheet of aluminum. Magnets could cling to metal buildings and rainbow strips of plastic could be weaved into chain link fences for privacy and decoration.
Twinkle lights could wrap around the barbed wire at the top of a fence. And an alley wall could be covered in chalkboard paint so pedestrians could stop and create their own art in downtown.
McCray has some unusual ideas, too, like gluing googly eyes on buildings: “You can’t be unhappy in a downtown if there’s googly eyes.”
McCray, who lives in a rural unincorporated Oklahoma town of 30 people, started writing and speaking about small towns in 2006. Since then, she has toured and consulted for rural communities across the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.
But McCray doesn’t hand each city she visits a checklist of how to create the perfect commercial core.
Instead, “I hope the vision comes from within. You are the expert on your town and your vision. But the larger vision is a prospering town with prospering residents,” she told a handful of Longview officials and citizens during a tour on Thursday.
Ray Pyle, who recently moved his property management business Catlin Properties Inc. into downtown Kelso, said the Kelso tour was a great way to start discussions.
“She’s throwing out ideas with potential and everyone starts talking. That’s what will make this work. Some people want to beat you with rules. Sometimes you don’t need that,” Pyle said. “Sometimes you have to be brave. You need to get out there and just do it.”
During the course of a walk, excitement and ideas increasingly came from neighbors and business owners, not just McCray. Tour attendees suggested a red carpet outside the Kelso Theater Pub, an Alice in Wonderland design on the electrical hut across from Kelso City Hall, and seasonal decorations in the Veterans Park across the street.
Longview Community Development Director John Brickey said McCray’s visit sparked ideas for him, such as holding outdoor musical performances near benches on Commerce Avenue, creating a bike event between restaurants similar to a pub crawl, and encouraging restaurants to install temporary wooden decks on the sidewalks and parking spaces in front of their businesses.
Throughout the week, McCray frequently returned to the benefits of “pop-up” stores and events, such as food truck festivals, farmers markets and outdoor art fairs. Community events could be held in the large Kelso Eagle’s parking lot, the Longview Merk’s historic commons area lobby or Woodland’s Steamboat Plaza.
Small, temporary business spaces give local entrepreneurs a toehold to leverage into larger opportunities, she said.
There are many things the cities are already doing well, she said. Each downtown has invested in upkeep of their streets and sidewalks. In particular, McCray praised Longview’s three-year, $4 million “streetscaping” project to spruce up Commerce Avenue between Washington Way and Hemlock Street with new plantings, sidewalks and lighting.
And she commended evident cooperation in all the cities between government officials, business owners and residents. “You don’t see that everywhere,” she said.
One of the biggest challenges often is creating an optimistic, upbeat mindset about the community, she said. Governments have the tendency to first think about all the reasons a new idea won’t work instead of thinking about how to make it successful.
“Your new default answer is ‘That’s a great idea. How can I test that in the smallest possible way?’ ” McCray told the Longview City Council Thursday.
There are four options when city regulations are stifling, she said. Change the law, temporarily suspend the law, do it anyway and pay the fine, or encourage community “ninjas.”
If a property owner won’t clean up her business, ninjas can sweep the sidewalks and wash the windows when no one is looking. If a fence is barren, ninjas should drape a painted parachute cloth over it. If a vacant building has empty windows, ninjas can tape old movie posters to the outside.
“What is the owner going to do? Be mad at them for putting flowers in window boxes?” she asked. “Ninjas can do good things, even without permission.”
Longview Councilwoman MaryAlice Wallis, who is the council liaison for the Longview Downtowners business group, said the city can be more open to new ideas and opportunities.
“We need to be brave and open to change. We need to be the town of ‘can do’ instead of ‘can’t do.’ There’s a different feel when you give people permission to be themselves and be authentic,” Wallis said.
McCray has reinforced the need for small, incremental and sometimes temporary efforts that can improve the quality of place in all the downtowns, Cowlitz Economic Development Council Community Engagement Director Lindsey Cope said Thursday.
“We get so caught up in the big projects and the idea of permanence that it stops us from even trying something new. We’re towns that were founded on trying something new,” Cope said. “Doing nothing is getting us nowhere. Sometimes an outside perspective is the kick in the pants you need to get you started.”