Downtown Snoqualmie’s $3.6 million facelift
April 2, 2010
By Dan Catchpole
UPDATED — 9:34 a.m. April 4, 2010
Walking along Railroad Avenue in Snoqualmie’s historic downtown, it is hard to not notice the web of cracks in the asphalt or the narrow sidewalk, which quickly becomes clogged by a woman with a stroller going into a café. On the street, most cars zip past without giving the storefronts a second glance.
“Our streetscape is so tired, it doesn’t attract people,” said Wendy Thomas, owner of Carmichael’s Hardware on the next street over, Falls Avenue.
Snoqualmie city officials have set their sights on using the city’s natural attractions and small-town, rustic charm to turn it into a tourist destination. Right now, they acknowledge, the downtown is more rustic than charming.
To make downtown more attractive, the city began giving the area a facelift, starting with a $3.6 million revitalization project. The city broke ground on the first — and most visible — phase of its rough plan March 29.
“The area has a worn, tired look,” Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson said.
The current phase, expected to be finished in October, will create an integrated, pedestrian-friendly downtown center and replace old infrastructure, such as sewer lines. It will clean up what Larson calls the area’s “visual pollution” by removing utility poles and the electric, cable and phone lines running between them.
The end product will be another key part of Snoqualmie’s development as a live/work/play community, he said.
“It’s not just about tourists. It’s a quality-of-life issue for the whole town,” Larson said.
An investment in the future
A refurbished downtown will even bring nonretail businesses to the city, such as to the Snoqualmie Ridge Business Park, city officials said.
While city officials are hopeful of attracting new businesses, existing ones downtown are worried they might not be around to see the work’s end result.
The construction comes during peak season for several of them, and they’re worried it will keep customers away. Many of the businesses are already suffering from the economy’s slow recovery from the recession.
“It’s going to be tough to get through, especially with the timing,” said Jody Sands, the owner of Isadora’s.
But, she said, it will be better for downtown merchants in the end.
“It’s going to put Snoqualmie on the map,” she said.
However, there could be growing pains for some merchants.
“Snoqualmie tends to have an attitude of ‘take us as we are or leave us.’ That’s got to change,” she said.
Businesses will have to match the city’s investment with their own.
“They’re investing with the expectation that we’re going to invest,” said Richard Anderson, executive director of the Northwest Railway Museum.
The museum, which draws more than 88,000 visitors each year, is a key piece of the city’s strategy of attracting visitors to downtown.
The work is critical for the museum’s future, Anderson said. “We can’t have a successful museum in an unsuccessful community.”
The museum’s already making an investment in downtown. It partnered with the city to construct new public restrooms on its site.
Even before the work began, times have been hard on downtown businesses.
“Right now, we have some vacancies in the downtown area, whereas two years ago, we didn’t,” the city’s economic advisor Bob Cole said.
While downtown business owners readily see the importance of private investment, getting loans isn’t easy for most small retail businesses now.
“Cash flow is always an issue for small businesses,” Cole said.
Commercial loans are not readily available for them, so he is working with a local bank to set aside $500,000 for façade improvement loans. The city is pushing to have low interest on the first $10,000 of a loan with normal rates applying to the rest.
Plan is to expand, enhance
City officials hope that the project will help expand, as well as enhance, the existing downtown commercial area. The current area is largely limited to one side of one block on Railroad Avenue.
The project is designed to better integrate Falls Avenue, King Street and River Street, which will, city officials said, spur infill on partially empty lots between Railroad Avenue and Falls Avenue.
Snoqualmie city officials also want to encourage more anchor stores to downtown to attract more shoppers, which currently only has one — Carmichael’s Hardware, Cole said.
City officials hope to sell or lease city-owned properties in the area in the next couple years — and in doing so, increase city revenue.
“The main point is to get this property back out on the tax rolls and let businesses occupy them,” Snoqualmie Planning Director Nancy Tucker said.
The biggest piece is the empty lot at the corner of King Street and Railroad Avenue. City officials want to sell it for redevelopment as a two- or three-story, mixed-use building with retail space on the ground floor.
The city might try to swap the property with land located north of Sahara Pizza, to extend Falls Avenue in the future, according to the latest draft of the city’s Downtown Master Plan.
The city will lease out a two-story building that served as City Hall before the new one opened.
Also, the city owns the brick building at the corner of River Street and Falls Avenue. The building, which has served as a bank, City Hall and planning office, will serve as the project contractors’ headquarters during construction, and will eventually be sold, Tucker said.
Since the building is registered with King County as a historic structure, it cannot be torn down unless it has no viable use.
‘Don’t redo us’
With shovels in the ground, downtown merchants must now simply wait to see how they fare during construction.
“We want to make sure they don’t redo us when they redo the streets,” Thomas said.
If they survive, several business owners said, they are sure the end result will be for the better.
As the economy continues its sluggish recovery, city officials don’t expect to see changes overnight, but they are hoping for the best.
“There are always pockets that are exceptions. And I think we have the potential to be an exception,” Cole said.
Dan Catchpole: 392-6434, ext. 246, or firstname.lastname@example.org.