Business owners in downtown Nampa laud the area for its historic buildings. The hundred-year-old structures are a source of pride, of small-town charm — and, owners admit, plenty of headaches.
Historic, as much as the word means ornamented cornices and Romanesque arches, also means crumbling facades and unreliable sprinkler systems. Or, as Kris Wear has discovered in the building she bought in 2015, it can mean asbestos-covered walls that don’t clean up cheaply.
Nampa has tried to capitalize on historic charm to attract businesses to vacant storefronts, but its success has been mixed.
“It’s sort of a Catch 22,” said Councilman Rick Hogaboam. “The poorer the state of a property becomes, the more expensive it is to redevelop.”
Still, that hasn’t stopped some ambitious first-time Nampa property owners from trying.
This year, Alvin Mullins bought the 114-year-old building at 1215 First St. South. Following about $1.5 million in renovations, a new brewery and taco joint will move in.
Nearby, the owner of Rolling H Cycles, Adam Haynes, bought the former Whiskey River bar at 1314 First St. South and will move his business there in 2019. Nampa developer Mike Mussell this summer opened the doors to renovations on the old Nampa library, which now holds the Nampa Chamber of Commerce and the One11 Press coffee store. And Because International, a Nampa nonprofit, just purchased the Yesteryear Shoppe bookstore building at 1211 First Street S.
Wear relocated her nutrition store, World of Nutrition, downtown from Caldwell Boulevard in 2015. “Exposure is much better out here than people flying by on the Boulevard,” she said. “Once the vacancies go away, the foot traffic will become even better.”
Ask any downtown Nampa business owner to name concerns about downtown, and vacancies come up. Each owner can point to a distressed building nearby.
Most of them can name the owner, too. In the eyes of some property owners and city leaders, missing-in-action owners are undermining their improvement efforts.
Wear points out the building at 1206 1st St. South, owned by Terry Ayers, who lives in Nampa. On his building, tiles crumble off the facade above the awning. Plywood meant to board up windows on the second floor has fallen out. The ceiling is caving in. There are few signs that just a few years ago, this was the former home of an antique shop.
And now? “That building needs to be condemned,” Wear said.
Ayers told the Statesman that his building has been vacant for nearly a year since antique business there stopped paying rent. Then a sprinkler leak damaged the ceiling, and he’s relying on a claim from his insurance to fix it.
“I’m doing my best to make downtown the best, but it’s very expensive to own property downtown,” he said.
Meanwhile, the property sits vacant. Vacant properties can lower property values of neighbors and making downtown a less desirable place to visit, many business owners said. In Nampa, the retail vacancy rate is 3.1 percent, about double the rate of Boise.
Wear also pointed to Darrell Kammer, a Nampa doctor who owns seven parcels downtown, including a parking lot on First Street and the former home of the Destination 112 event center on 13th Street. Wear said Kammer has struggled to retain long-term tenants there. The event center closed in June. Kammer did not respond to multiple messages left at his office.
Others are frustrated with owners who reside out-of-state. Haynes rents a building owned by the family trust of Joe Neff — head of the Neff headwear brand based in Irvine, California. Haynes also bought his building from Neff, and he said it took months to coordinate the sale. While the building is new to Haynes, it’s another of the block’s aging properties. Haynes said he anticipates extensive renovations.
“The challenge is that you have property owned by some big-business owners who can afford to sit on their property,” Hogaboam said. From their standpoint, it may not be worth it to pour millions into a renovation when the return on rent is still relatively low in Nampa compared with Boise or Meridian, he added.
Some downtown business owners wonder whether property owners are deliberately waiting for others to make the first reinvestments downtown and waiting for property values to increase so they can sell at a profitable price.
Ayers said he doesn’t plans to sell his building, and the vacancy shouldn’t imply he doesn’t care about downtown. “There’s nothing that gets my heart beating more than seeing people walk around downtown,” he said.
But he noted that downtown’s problems fall on both transient businesses and property owners. “It’s a huge dilemma: How do you put up some money to make it incredible, to get some businesses here that actually will be sustainable?”
Business improvement district hits bumps
The combination of absentee owners and vacant storefronts has strained Nampa’s Business Improvement District, an organization that puts on events and has headed beautification efforts. Under a 1985 ordinance, downtown businesses are assessed annually at 6.6 cents per square foot. They pay a minimum of $220. When there is no business inside, property owners pay at a half rate.
Morgan Treasure has spent much of her three years as the BID’s executive director attempting to contact property owners and businesses to collect overdue payments.
“There were a lot of questions around who’s responsible for paying, who’s responsible for notifying,” she said.
That has put the district’s survival at risk, she said.
Wear, who recently ended her term as the district’s board president, said the group must find a way to restructure so vacant properties don’t get a break on assessment or find more tenants to rent empty stores.
“The city needs to put pressure on property owners to take care of their buildings,” Wear said. “The question is, how do you do that?”
Hogaboam, who is in his first year on the council, has some ideas. He doesn’t want to punish owners for failing to find tenants, as some cities have done by charging vacancy fees. Arlington, Massachusetts, for example, began charging landlords $400 for each vacant storefront and cut vacancies in half by the end of the year.
Rather, Hogaboam supports positive reinforcement. For example, the city could offer an owner-occupancy tax reduction to encourage businesses to own the properties they operate in. Or it might temporarily freeze any increase on property assessments for businesses that do renovate their buildings, so owners aren’t scared by the possibility of a tax hike. He also suggested greater leniency on code enforcement for older buildings so renovations don’t become prohibitively expensive.
Owners who have converted distressed properties signal a way forward. When Heather and Ryan Driscoll moved into 1214 First Street to open PreFunk Beer Bar, they had to make serious improvements to their space. “The building was pretty neglected,” Heather said.
But the owner, Michael McQueen, has since renovated the building, adding new carpets and paint. Messenger Pizza also occupies the building. People like Haynes and Wear point to PreFunk and Messenger as catalysts for downtown growth.
A vision for downtown
For Mayor Debbie Kling, the small business environment downtown contributes to the city’s quality of life.
“The downtown is a living room.” she said. “It’s a gathering place for the community.”
Kling campaigned on a promise to focus on downtown. Over the last several months, she has worked alongside the business improvement district and the Idaho Department of Commerce to discuss what the future will look like as the city grows to 100,000 people.
“People are saying they want a family friendly downtown,” Kling said. “So, what kind of business mix do you have in your downtown that supports that?
Now that Kling’s conversations have led to a central downtown goal — to create more family amenities — she said she will start working on policy to get there.
The city’s most recent revitalization efforts have taken shape through its downtown urban renewal district, but certain uses of its funds were met with criticism. Some said Nampa’s use of urban renewal district money to build a new public safety complex and library violated the spirit of urban renewal by building government buildings, not enticing private investment.
In the wake of that controversy, the Idaho Legislature in 2016 placed new limitations on urban renewal districts that limited their spending on public buildings, the Idaho Press reported.
Even after a summer of construction that saw three businesses close, Wear says specialty, service-oriented retailers, like her nutrition store, have what it takes to survive downtown. “You have to give people a reason to come in, whether it’s knowledge or service,” she says.
Hogaboam predicts downtown could turn into a food district, with smaller home-grown restaurants. He praises Mullins’ renovation of the building that will house the taco-and-tequila restaurant, to be called Mesa, and Mullins’ own 2C Brewery.
“When you see someone go all in, it instills pride in the community,” he said. “It inspires others to see the vision and to invest.”
Wear shares the councilman’s optimism for downtown.
“It’s exciting to get more stuff going on down here,” she said.