ELLENSBURG -- Someone walking though downtown Ellensburg might think the recession bypassed this quaint college and cowboy town.
Construction crews have been an ongoing presence as worn-out historic buildings are renovated for new restaurants and retailers. Last year, 20 new businesses opened in the area and several more are slated to open in 2010.
Ellensburg has a passion for historic preservation -- not to mention a large and thriving college community -- both of which have helped fuel a healthy downtown economy.
But business leaders also attribute the city's success to being a Main Street Community. Run under the auspices of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the program helps communities develop a comprehensive approach to downtown revitalization.
Ellensburg is one of 11 cities in Washington designated as a Main Street Community. It met several requirements that include developing a comprehensive work plan, regular attendance at training programs and submitting regular reports.
In return, Main Street Communities get regular visits and program reviews from program officials and one-on-one assistance in maintaining a work plan and handling other issues. The designation can also serve as a selling point to property investors and business owners.
For Ellensburg to see business openings and construction projects in the middle of "one of the worst recessions we can remember" illustrates why the Main Street program is important, said Timothy Bishop, executive director of the Ellensburg Downtown Association.
"When you see a community the size of Ellensburg with 20 new businesses, that's significant economic (activity)," he said.
The Main Street program, initiated in Washington in 1991, is just one model of downtown development, but most downtown programs statewide use the approach in some way.
The program dates back to 1977, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation launched the Main Street Project, a three-year study that looked at why downtowns in American towns and cities were dying. The trust created a revitalization strategy to save historic commercial buildings in three communities.
The primary mission is to encourage downtown revitalization with four key principles: design, promotion, organization and economic restructuring.
Ellensburg's downtown community put Bishop in charge of the vision in 2006, when he was hired away from Walla Walla, a Main Street Community for 18 years. It applied as a Main Street community in 2007.
Since it began tracking downtown investments for the Main Street program in July 2007, Ellensburg's 16-block area has seen $930,148 in building renovations.
That figure does not include four major renovation projects in the works, including the Shermans' project. Bishop expects the additional projects to generate $2.4 million to $4 million in construction activity in the next 12 to 18 months.
Often, renovations will be small, like replacing a roof or repainting an old building, Bishop said. But as business owners and property investors see positive results from those renovations, they are more willing to take on bigger projects.
When targeted for state budget cuts, supporters rallied. Though only 11 communities carry the Main Street designation, they argued that dozens more have relied on the program for workshops and a tax credit program. They presented this set of statistics: Since 1991, the Washington State Main Street Program has helped create 11,810 jobs in 3,721 new and expanded businesses and has helped fuel $413 million in private investment.
Earlier this week, the state Senate voted to continue the program but didn't specify a dollar amount. The House has approved $44,000.
Prosser is poised
Of all the communities lobbying for the Main Street Program, few are as motivated as Prosser.
It has made its downtown association director position full time and has been marketing its downtown core as a wine country tourist attraction.
The Historic Downtown Prosser Association wants to be Washington's 12th Main Street Community, but for the moment, it's at the mercy of Olympia politics.
It's been nearly two years since the state has added anyone to the list.
Though Prosser doesn't have that Main Street label just yet, the downtown community is doing everything it can to make sure it's ready when the state program starts accepting new applicants.
In Yakima, downtown development efforts have been driven by the Committee for Downtown Yakima, a coalition of business owners, property owners and community leaders. The downtown committee pays for landscaping and downtown ambassadors -- the purple-shirted men and women who provide security and clean-up duties -- through a business improvement district.
The Committee for Downtown Yakima is a "Main Street affiliate" and uses some of the program's resources but has not considered applying for the Community designation, said Dan Kelleher, the committee's executive director.
One key element of the program is to show a commitment to renovating historical buildings. And unlike Walla Walla and Ellensburg, Yakima has been more divided on historic preservation.
With Yakima's Main Street affiliation, businesses have benefited from a credit in the state Business & Occupation tax or utility tax to any business that makes a donation to a qualified Main Street affiliate or Main Street Community.
Main Street affiliates can also attend workshops and conferences organized by the state program and have access to a lending library that provides publications and media on different aspects of downtown development.
"(Main Street) is not something we call on everyday, but when we do need it, it's helpful," Kelleher said.