Elliott Bay Book Company's move was a blessing in disguise for Pioneer Square

The Main Street program is coming to Seattle, and a new move to revitalize the neighborhood puts the onus of success on the Square's little guys, which some argue is right where it should be.
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Iron pergola, Pioneer Square

The Main Street program is coming to Seattle, and a new move to revitalize the neighborhood puts the onus of success on the Square's little guys, which some argue is right where it should be.

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'ꀙs 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.

Daniels has a major stake in the Square's future, and particularly how it works for locals. He is a key player in the proposed development of the north parking lot of Qwest Field, which at some point is slated for a high-density urban development that will bring hundreds of new residents. It's a project that some have deemed "vital" to the Square. But that could be years out, and the Square can't wait for new people; nor, apparently, can it rely too heavily on seasonal tourists and sports fans. Pioneer Square, in some sense, has to focus on serving itself. And that means shop-by-shop involvement, and adjustments.

Daniels says there is a need to "get our merchants to join the revitalization effort and adjust how they have been doing business if we want the Square to be as successful on the ground floor as it is in the upper floors. It's not up to community leaders or the Alliance for the retailers to be successful. It's in their own hands."

Putting tools in those hands is what Main Street does, and things like the upcoming training are key to that. Turning a neighborhood around is more than just colorful banners and a new slogan.

The Main Street program in Washington had hard times in the recent budget crunch. Its budget was slashed, and it was moved from the Department of Commerce and Economic Development to the Department of Archaeology Historic Preservation this year, but without the money to fully staff it. But there was some funding for the program.

The solution, according to the preservation department's head Allyson Brooks, is to use what she calls the "NGO" model. To that end, the state Main Street program will be run on contract by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, which ran the program before the state took it over more than 20 years ago. The Trust already successfully manages two popular programs for the state, one that rehabilitates historic county court houses and another that restores old barns. The Trust is currently interviewing for a new staffer to run the state Main Street effort.

According to Brooks, her department will still administer the program, but the Trust will do outreach and work directly with the cities that are part of it. It's a one-year experiment, but it has virtues. One is expertise: the Main Street program was created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the affiliated Washington Trust ran the program here previously. It is in sync with their mission, and it offers a chance to widen the donor base of support for Main Street. The Trust can also help with public awareness of the program and its benefits.

Another thing the Trust offers is lobbying power. Main Street offers some significant tax breaks for donors to the program. In Washington, donors to Main Street programs in cities under 190,000 population can get a big B&O tax credit.

The Trust is drafting legislation to extend that break to participants in bigger cities like Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane. That's a potential benefit of Pioneer Square's joining the program and the Trust's management of it, providing impetus to extend the B&O benefit from small towns to large urban areas statewide.

That, in turn, could encourage more cities and neighborhoods to embrace economic revitalization through preservation.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.