For Becky McCray, a downtown reflects the health and vitality of a small community.
“The downtown is your core. You don’t want to have a mushy core,” McCray said Tuesday. “A strong downtown reflects the strength of the local economy, the state of local education and serves as a great way to look at how well you’re doing.”
Starting Tuesday McCray, a rural and small town business expert, will spend a week touring the downtowns in Cowlitz County’s five cities and Cathlamet to recommend improvements. Many of the tours are free and open to the public (see attached schedule).
And on Thursday, McCray will be the keynote speaker at the Cowlitz Economic Development Council’s annual meeting.
The CEDC is hosting her visit, but the cities are helping pay for her consulting fees, CEDC Community Engagement Director Lindsey Cope said Tuesday.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about the CEDC is that we’re only interested in big business and fossil fuels, which is not true. We saw this as an opportunity to show the community that the CEDC has a vested interest in small business and developing our rural communities and small cities,” Cope said.
McCray lives in a rural unincorporated Oklahoma town of 30 people. She has served as a city manager, newspaper journalist and owner of a retail store. She now owns and operates a small cattle ranch with her husband: “I don’t just talk about rural issues. I live them.”
She 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.
“Each downtown is a little bit different and the best downtowns reflect their town’s own character,” she said. “What really makes a downtown successful is if people are using it; if you see people lingering and spending time willingly because they enjoy being in the setting of downtown.”
A misconception McCray said she often hears about downtown revitalization is that communities should not start any smaller projects until after they have full funding for multimillion dollar projects. Instead, McCray advocates first tackling small, cheap projects that can have an immediate visible effect, she said. This could mean decorating blank walls with chalk art, pulling weeds, washing windows or sweeping sidewalks.
Another immediate improvement is loaning empty lots out to local organizations for a limited time. The library could set up an Alice in Wonderland tea party for the month of May, then an automobile group could host a car show in June and then 4H could use the lot for a petting zoo in July, she said.
It’s also important to support local business owners because they are invested in the community’s particular values and challenges, she said.
“(Local business owners) spend more of their money locally buying supplies and using local services. And they are local people who reflect local priorities,” McCray said.
McCray said she hopes to spark some action. And walking around as a group will generate some discussions, she said.
“I never bring a prewritten plan or checklist. I come to find out what matters in your community and find out how I can best help you to unleash the actions that your own people are going to help you take,” McCray said.
Cope said she hopes McCray’s visit helps Cowlitz County residents realize what is already great about our community.
“We have a little bit of a self-esteem problem in Cowlitz County. We’re a great place to live, work and play, but people who live here may not see it,” Cope said. “Cowlitz County as a whole has really been doing great things the last few years. Sometimes I think we lose sight of our successes because we’re just moving on to the next thing. I hope that (this visit) will give them some outside, non-biased perceptions and ideas about how to continue that growth.”