Kelso officials and business owners celebrated the new streetlights, park benches and spruced-up look of West Main Street Friday, but they all agreed that the $1.2 million streetscape project took too long.
The city commemorated the project’s completion with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Fourth Avenue and West Main Street. Kelso Mayor David Futcher said the project is another step toward making “this little piece of Kelso a jewel on this side of the river.”
“As much as it sometimes feels like things happen without people knowing where we’re going, this is not a random thing we’re doing,” Futcher said. “This is part of a West Kelso plan for more development out here. These are parts of how we’re going to get there.”
Other developments for West Kelso are in progress. City Manager Steve Taylor said the city will finalize plans to improve Catlin Spray Park sometime in the next year. Kelso council members next week are also expected to give final approval to zoning changes that would allow denser housing and mixed-use developments in the neighborhood.
About 40 people showed up for the ceremony, including state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, Kelso Councilwoman Nancy Malone, and representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.
But established business owners were simply waiting for construction to end. Taylor said construction ended in November, and the city completed installing the streetlights Monday.
Joleen Runnels, owner of the drive-thru coffee shop Cup o’ Jos, said she felt it was a superficial use of the money — a “facelift of a road” — that she thinks didn’t help business owners who didn’t need pedestrian walks or additional parking. She said due to an unreliable subcontractor, Kelaye Concrete LLC, business owners weren’t informed of road closures and delays.
“A lot of things went wrong with that project. It was pretty frustrating,” Runnels said. “It doesn’t feel like we’re wanting businesses to succeed. It feels like the customers don’t drive to our businesses anymore.”
Aerie Lane, a do-it-yourself craft business, opened in December on Main Street. Foye O’Neill, the owner’s sister, said she thought the construction made the neighborhood cleaner. Their store sits right in front of the new angled parking. The owners made sure to ask about the timeline of the streetscape project before they opened, she said.
“We knew that it was going to be wrapping up soon,” she said.
Kelso Community Development Director Michael Kardas said the city began developing the idea in 2014 after the city finished its $9 million West Main realignment project in July 2013. It took a long time to secure funding, Kardas said.
Officials said the realignment became a catalyst for focusing on West Main improvements. The realignment was meant to help improve the connection between Allen Street Bridge and Ocean Beach Highway by redirecting traffic to Catlin Street.
But Kardas said the project didn’t help businesses the way it was intended, and West Main Street “stood out as needing some attention.”
The West Main streetscape project raised intersections on Fourth and Sixth Avenue, eliminated the center left-turn lane on Main Street and converted three blocks of Sixth Street into a one-way northbound with 15 angled parking spaces. More than 800 feet of retail frontage in West Kelso have improved stormwater designs, and the commercial corridor has park benches and bike racks.
Taylor said West Kelso provides opportunity for development because of its location between Kelso’s residential center and Longview’s business center. He said the city’s plans look in the long term for what businesses and developers will want when they search for new locations.
“Just like in any area in transition, you will see your business make-up transform over time,” Taylor said.