Main Street program may be the spark Langley seeks

The city got a glimpse Wednesday night of what could be, through the eyes of a nonprofit movement specializing in downtown revitalization.

About 50 residents, merchants, property owners and city officials sloshed through the slush to Langley United Methodist Church to hear about Main Street’s strategy for downtown renewal.

“Now may be the time for Langley,” said Kimberly Tiller, who with her son David owns Whidbey Island Soap Company on First Street, and who has been pushing the Main Street concept for four years.

“I fervently believe this can be a good program for us,” added Tiller, who organized the informational event.

Main Street is a self-help approach to downtown commercial revitalization. It has assisted 1,800 cities and towns in 40 states, with the help of the National Main Street Center and statewide programs.

Success requires the cooperation of property owners, bankers, citizens, public officials, chambers of commerce and other local groups to generate leadership and common goals.

Main Street takes a four-pronged approach, focusing on organization, promotion, design and economics.

Since 1991, the Washington State Main Street Program has helped create 11,810 jobs, 3,721 new and expanded businesses and private investment of $413 million in commercial infrastructure.

The state program is currently assisting 109 projects in various stages, and 11 others that have been completed, including sections of Port Townsend and Mount Vernon.

Stoking the embers of possibility for Langley on Wednesday night was Sarah Hansen, state Main Street coordinator, who showed slides of successful urban projects from throughout the United States.

“A downtown is a source of community identity,” Hansen said. “It reflects pride and a sense of place.

“It’s a good gauge of community vitality,” she added. “If you are excited to be there, other people are going to want to join you there.”

Main Street is part of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation and under the wing of the state Department of Archeology & Historic Preservation. It assists communities with advice, expertise, technical support and networking in the pursuit of grants, tax breaks and other incentives, Hansen said.

She said Langley, with its seaside location and advanced awareness of the importance of appropriate signage and attractive storefront displays, is ripe to take advantage of the program at minimum expense.

“You guys are so well positioned to take all these ideas and make it happen,” Hansen said.

She said the community might even get the ball rolling with an initial investment of $50,000 or less.

“You can start small,” she said. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.”

Hansen said Main Street helps communities set up a nonprofit organization, establish committees, find a manager and look for grant money. Seed money comes mostly from tax-deductible donations, along with a contribution from the city.

Mayor Paul Samuelson said the city wholeheartedly supports the Main Stream concept, but would be unable to contribute funds in a tight budget year.

Councilwoman Rene Neff, a First Street business owner, said the key to revitalizing Langley’s downtown is to attract new businesses and more visitors.

“That little element is what’s missing,” she said.

Others said the trick is to sustain the initial enthusiasm, something community members have had difficulty doing in the past.

Councilman Bob Waterman said Langley’s emphasis on historic preservation should give it a leg-up in the Main Street program, which could be a “mechanism of discussion.”

“We already have all of the elements,” Waterman said. “It would be a focus worth pursuing.”

Hansen said that although chambers of commerce can’t manage Main Street programs because they’re not nonprofits, they can still be an integral part of the process, even in a town such as Langley, where some merchants have been at odds at times with their business association.

“It really makes sense to work together,” Hansen said.

Tiller said Main Street may be the vehicle that finally gets merchants, property owners and residents on the same page when it comes to the downtown core.

“We’ve all been a little scattered,” she said. “This is for all the people in town more than anything.”

Main Street is ready to help, Hansen said.

“Langley can be one of a kind, an exciting place to be,” she said. “We’ll do everything we can to give you the tools to be successful.”

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