Two recent developments bode well for the future of Pioneer Square and historic preservation as an economic development tool in Washington State.
The troubled Square, Seattle's signature historic area, is moving toward becoming the first urban neighborhood in the state to join the national Main Street program. In addition, the state Main Street program will now be run by the Seattle-based Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, on a contract with the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. The two moves give new momentum to historic preservation as a tool for economic revitalization.
Following a city-driven re-look at Pioneer Square, one conclusion was that Pioneer Square needed a new group that could organize its diverse constituencies, including its retailers. One model considered was Main Street, a tactical program that has a proven track record of helping historic retail districts across the country thrive. In Washington, those districts have mostly been in smaller towns and cities, such as Walla Walla, Port Townsend, and Ellensburg. But in other parts of the U.S., Main Street, which supports small business, has worked well in urban and inner-city neighborhoods from Boston to Baltimore to San Diego. Main Street, in other words, is not just a rural thing.
With an eye toward joining the Main Street effort, the Pioneer Square Community Association has re-branded and reorganized as The Alliance for Pioneer Square. Leslie Smith, who has experience running and turning around nonprofits, is the director. Funding is coming from the city, business and property owners, and the major sports franchises. Former Seattle mayor Charley Royer and Nitze-Stagen developer Kevin Daniels co-chair the group, which is operating under the slogan "New Energy for Seattle’s Historic Neighborhood."
Pioneer Square is already trying things that are Main Street staples, such as the First Thursday Art Walk and the new Seattle Square market, which help bring new activity to the streets. The group is also bringing in Main Street trainers from the national program who will focus on helping retailers (and the district) sharpen their competitiveness and develop grassroots leadership. The training sessions will be held July 26-29.
An essential element of success is getting small businesses, especially retailers, on board. Main Street is a long-term program that focuses on the details of running and promoting successful businesses. For example, Daniels says the Alliance will soon be providing new marketing data to retailers so they can develop and target their businesses and sales efforts. Daniels is eager for the Square's retailers to get on board, but he has concerns. The Square has been notoriously fractured in the past, and he fears many merchants are in denial about the cause of some of the district's problems.
Daniels says the departure of Elliott Bay Book Company (which has a new lease on life in its Capitol Hill home) was a "blessing in disguise."
Why? Because if Pioneer Square is akin to a mall, Elliott Bay was a troubled anchor tenant, with troubles that went beyond the Square per se, having been caused by the changing book industry as well. Elliott Bay's troubles, in turn, impacted businesses that relied on the bookstore as a draw for their traffic. Now people will have to sharpen their game without an enfeebled anchor trying to hold more than its own weight.
Says Daniels, "To be successful we need all of the retailers to update their current marketing strategies...not hope that people come down to Pioneer Square to visit Elliott Bay Bookstore or see a sporting event.
"When (Elliott Bay owner) Peter (Aaron) announced he was moving to Capitol Hill it made our whole community and city officials stop and really commit to the revitalization of Pioneer Square. From our community discussions and research, we are learning that the future of successful retail in the Square is to market to the locals, and not focus on tourism or the sports crowd since they are so transient and buy at the low end of the retail scale. The newly launched Square Market is but one great example of when you focus on the locals and bring in high quality artisan products, the products are very well received." Daniels says the Square Market went better than anyone expected.
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