Caldwell’s downtown still awaits revival

A creek beautification project was supposed to foster private investment. It hasn’t yet, but many merchants remain optimistic.

November 24, 2013 

  • HOLIDAY LIGHTS DRAW CROWDS TO DOWNTOWN

    Downtown Caldwell’s creekside park has just entered a peak season. “Winter Wonderland,” which kicked off Friday, bedecks trees, bridges and other fixtures with thousands of holiday lights, which light up the area through New Year’s. Mayor Garret Nancolas said the attraction drew about 6,000 people last year, many from other counties of eastern Oregon.

    Downtown businesses have begun to get in on the action by staying open late during the lighting season, which this year began Nov. 22. Christian bookstore owner Linda Vavold said she’s stayed open late during holiday season in the past but will skip it this year: “They don’t come down here to shop,” she said. “If they come in here, it’s to get warm.”

    But other merchants, including Norman Jewelers, Story & Company and the Rubaiyat bookstore, plan extended hours during Winter Wonderland this year, figuring that as revelers learn that businesses are open, they’ll factor a little shopping into their plans.

  • ABOUT KRISTIN RODINE

    A Statesman editor and writer since 2001, Kristin covers business with particular interest in the people and issues involved in the economy, technology and law. She lives just outside Caldwell and covered Canyon County for about five years.

Downtown Caldwell is a holdout for hope. With an abundance of vacant storefronts and dreams of revitalization largely deferred, city leaders and many merchants express confidence that change for the better is underway and picking up steam.

“In the past three years, downtown has really started to bloom,” said Amy Perry, whose Rubaiyat bookstore sits across the street from the empty hulk of King’s discount store, by most accounts the city center’s chief eyesore.

Perry and neighboring business owners cheered this summer when the city’s urban renewal district bought the 15,000-square-foot building for about $250,000, with plans to raze it and replace it with unspecified mixed-use development.

“We’re on a roll,” Perry said.

Others see it differently. Among them is Joe Lombardo, who has sold collectibles and other second-hand items at Joe’s Emporium on Main Street for the past decade.

“The buildings are empty; they’re all for sale,” Lombardo said. “Nobody invests in downtown. Urban Renewal are the only ones buying.

“I don’t see that they revitalized anything. They took the creek, opened it up and made it beautiful, but all the buildings are facing the wrong way.”

He refers to Indian Creek, which was concealed by downtown buildings until a car wash collapsed into it in 2002. The city decided to uncover that hidden asset as the centerpiece of a project to breathe new business life into downtown.

They called it Catalyst.

BIG PLANS, BAD TIMING

The city kicked off the grand revitalization plan five years ago, unveiling and rerouting Indian Creek and announcing a future City Hall complex that city leaders said would jump-start a downtown renaissance. Streetscaping and other improvements were part of Catalyst, too.

Then the recession hit. The idea of a new city headquarters was swapped for a community college campus. The envisioned influx of private development money never materialized.

The city of about 46,000 is left with a lovely creekside park and a downtown core riddled with vacancies. In the 12-block downtown core, there are at least 14 empty storefronts, along with numerous restaurants, thrift shops, and services ranging from tax preparation and bail bonds to martial arts training and haircuts.

Larger stores include Rostock Furniture, a downtown fixture since 1952, and Angler’s Habitat, where shoppers can try out fly-fishing skills at the creek across the street.

Many businesses old and new say they’re excited about the area’s future — a more positive response than the Idaho Statesman received when it asked the same questions three and a half years ago.

Opponents, including a watchdog blogger who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Caldwell’s longtime mayor, say the city’s continued use of urban renewal funds is a futile attempt to use public money to regain Caldwell's glory days, when downtown boasted Sears, J.C. Penney, Falk’s ID and a host of smaller shops. They left in the 1970s, many mall-bound.

The rerouted creek was unveiled in spring 2008 — just before the Great Recession.

“Really, the only disappointment is our timing was bad,” said Caldwell Mayor Garret Nancolas, who this month cruised to an easy victory for a fifth four-year term. “The national economy certainly put a hitch in our gitalong.”

Several downtown businesspeople also cited the economic doldrums as the primary speed bump in downtown’s progress.

“The recession was tough,” said Dan Norman, whose Norman Jewelers on Kimball Avenue has been a Caldwell mainstay since 1947.

A loyal customer base helped the store weather downtown’s boom and bust, he said.

TRYING TO ATTRACT DEVELOPERS’ DOLLARS

Caldwell Economic Development Council Director Steve Fultz said he’d expected downtown to snare a major developer or two by now, but it hasn’t happened.

The development council’s business retention and expansion committee sent out a request for developers in 2011 to take on most of the creekside block between Kimball and 7th avenues. The idea, he said, was to tear down several existing buildings — the owners were on board — and come up with a new retail development.

“We only got two responses, and both said they weren’t interested,” Fultz said. “We were surprised. Urban Renewal had committed up to a million dollars of incentives, but the timing just didn’t seem to be right.”

Now, he said, the development council has a different prospect on the line, but it’s uncertain whether that developer will commit to downtown or perhaps a different site in Caldwell. A nondisclosure agreement prevents Fultz from revealing the particular downtown area or specific retail use envisioned, he said, but it would likely involve an investment of $10 million to $40 million and create “a significant number of jobs.”

“What I hear from (developers) is that Caldwell is kind of on the radar, but it doesn’t seem like things are going forward or backward,” Fultz said. “It’s kind of stagnant.”

Boise developer Bill Clark, a board member of Idaho Smart Growth, said Caldwell’s hopes for major private investment downtown still could be realized.

“I think the Indian Creek thing was really smart,” Clark said. “I think it’s too early to say that didn’t work.”

It takes a while after a recession for confidence to build, he said, and as newer small businesses take hold, larger projects will likely follow.

George Iliff, managing owner of commercial real estate firm Colliers International, Boise, agreed that momentum takes time to build. The prime factor preventing big new developments is likely that developers don’t have prospective tenants willing to pay the rents needed to justify investment, he said.

Colliers Canyon County broker Lincoln Hagood said downtown Caldwell’s annual rents generally run about $2 per square foot lower than in downtown Nampa. Neither city, he says, has downtown rates high enough to lure new construction.

Fultz said it’s hard for downtown Caldwell, invisible from Interstate 84, to attract new retail in competition with the freeway-friendly shopping centers in Nampa, including Treasure Valley Marketplace just a few miles east of Caldwell.

That’s a common issue for downtown cores, Clark said, especially in attracting national chains.

“Downtown Boise wouldn’t be the success it is if it wasn’t for the (I-184) Connector,” he said.

Boise’s core also benefits from a large workforce to lunch and shop nearby, he said. That workforce includes thousands of state, federal and local government workers. Caldwell Guardian blogger Paul Alldredge believes that Caldwell, as Canyon County’s seat, could have created a smaller version of that dynamic by focusing on luring more government offices downtown.

Alldredge, who ran for mayor this year — and drew about 35 percent of the vote — because he hated to see Nancolas go unopposed, said the city’s strategy for renewing downtown has been scattered and ineffective.

“Look at downtown. It’s a dump,” he said.

Alldredge contends the city “threw money” at revitalization efforts.

“It was like they were playing Whack-a-Mole with scarce tax dollars with no plan in sight,” he said.

Nancolas said Caldwell’s urban renewal district has invested $18 million to $20 million downtown, principally on Indian Creek and the adjacent Treasure Valley Community College campus.

Alldredge said investing tax dollars on a creekside campus for the Oregon-based college was foolhardy and hasn’t resulted in the boon for downtown merchants the city predicted.

Said Lombardo, the emporium owner: “A parking lot and a college. That hasn’t helped my business one bit.”

He and Alldredge said the city should have directed that money toward getting developers to raze and replace rundown buildings.

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF DOWNTOWN?

“In my opinion it is way better than it used to be, but certainly a lot needs to be done,” Nancolas said. “There’s not nearly as many empty buildings.”

Statistics to compare current vacancy rates with pre-Catalyst rates were not available, but commercial broker Hagood said the proportion of vacant buildings is much higher than in downtown Nampa.

Things have been looking up recently, he said.

“There’s been more activity in Caldwell in the last five months than we’ve seen in the previous two years combined,” he said. That’s throughout the city, but it includes downtown, he said.

“Some of the spaces that have stayed vacant for many years have had businesses come in,” he said, citing Duke’s Pawn and the Men’s Consignment Store as examples. “Back (in 2008) when we got hit pretty hard and everyone was leaving, Caldwell lost a lot more than Nampa and Meridian did, and it’s just taken a while to recover those.”

Ruth Story, who owns the upscale women’s consignment store Story & Company, said she’s excited about downtown’s present energy and future prospects. She opened the store four and a half years ago at the corner of Arthur Street and Kimball Avenue.

“Caldwell didn’t have one thing to do for ladies on their lunch hour, and the courthouse (a few blocks from downtown) has a lot of ladies. That’s kind of what brought me here,” she said.

Story said her business has done well, even though the King’s store across the street closed before she’d settled in.

“I found out about a month after I signed the lease,” she said. “But that wouldn’t have stopped me.”

“I’ve had 20 percent growth each year, and that’s pretty amazing,” she said.

Perry said her Rubaiyat bookstore has shown “constant steady growth,” able to meet or beat her sales targets every month since she opened next door to Story & Company in 2012. The challenge, she said, is “to get the word out that there is a downtown Caldwell.”

Jewelry store owner Norman shares city leaders’ belief that beautifying Indian Creek is paying off for businesses.

“That has really worked,” he said, adding that the city’s efforts to make the area more appealing have produced more walk-in business downtown.

Next to the creek on Kimball near Blaine, Linda Vavold said business at her Christian bookstore, For Heaven’s Sake, has waned since the Catalyst project began. Sales were about four times stronger when she opened about 16 years ago. she said.

In 2010, Vavold told the Statesman that revitalization efforts mainly brought fishermen to the creek and folks with laptops who parked in front of her store to use downtown’s free Wi-Fi.

This month, she said her experience downtown hasn’t improved since then, but some newer businesses, notably the Bird Stop Coffee House and Indian Creek Steakhouse, have caused some excitement.

“That’s our aim, to bring life back to downtown,” said Mitchell Kelly, son of Bird Stop owner Matt Kelly.

With comfy chairs, an outdoor seating area looking toward the creek and live music two nights a week, the coffee shop has been gradually building a customer base, he said, and downtown seems to be getting more foot traffic.

WHAT’S NEEDED NOW?

One thing that’s missing, Fultz said, is a development coordinator who concentrates entirely on downtown Caldwell. Fultz’s two-person office handles all of Caldwell’s commercial and industrial areas. The city had a dedicated downtown development person until Dennis Cannon retired a few years ago, but Cannon has not been replaced.

Planning director Brian Billingsley and bookstore owner Perry said they’d like to see residential development downtown so people could more readily do business where they live. Lombardo favors a retirement complex for the same reason.

The economic development council’s retention and expansion committee had recommended the King’s site be turned into a plaza similar to Boise’s Grove, member Bob Carpenter said. It doesn’t look like that will happen, he said, but a gathering place like that could energize development efforts. He also advocates a program to rehabilitate facades of historic buildings, and projects that would place businesses downstairs and residences upstairs.

Mayor Nancolas said he hopes for more downtown businesses, such as sports bars or microbreweries, that appeal to a younger crowd and would draw students from the adjacent community college and, less than a mile from downtown, the College of Idaho. Downtown housing geared to college students also would be a boost for the city center’s vitality, Clark said.

Lombardo said city leaders should hold a brainstorming session with business owners to strategize on how to spend available funds and make the downtown stronger.

And everybody said they want more retailers, restaurants and professional offices to open downtown.

“I would love to see more businesses popping in,” Story said. “I think they probably would if the economy were better.”

Kristin Rodine: 377-6447

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