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Key booster, supporter of downtown Olympia moves on

Say farewell to Jeanne Carras, downtown Olympia.

Carras, a longtime downtown business owner and a key booster, supporter and champion of downtown, has decided it is time to retire.

Carras, who will turn 60 in January, follows Olympia Downtown Association Executive Director Connie Lorenz, who also recently announced her retirement.

“I love what I do, I love waiting on people, but I also love my husband,” Carras said, recalling a recent trip with her husband in which she had to fly home early to attend to Bonaventure, her women’s shoe business.

But this time it didn’t feel right, she said.

As she reflected on that time not spent with him, she came to a decision about retirement.

“It was time for me,” Carras said.

Carras is in talks with a potential buyer for her business, but if a deal doesn’t materialize, she’s prepared to close it and move on, splitting her time between Arizona and Thurston County. A retirement sale is underway. She expects to run the business through fall Arts Walk in early October.

The ODA’s Lorenz said Carras was energetic about everything she pursued.

“If she’s going to commit to it, she does it,” Lorenz said. “Downtown will miss her, and her energy for downtown will be missed.”

Carras said she leaves downtown a much more vibrant place than it was 20 years ago, citing the recent arrival of two banks that have decided to call downtown home, and the success of a recent block party on Washington Street between Fifth Avenue and Legion Way.

Not everyone is going to agree with her view of downtown, and Carras acknowledged that she’s not blind to some of the area’s challenges, but she also remembers a time when downtown had much more vacant space, including buildings left vacant by former department stores.

CAPITOL WAY

Carras moved to Olympia when she was 15, attended Olympia High School and later had a dream of opening a clothing store.

Before that, though, she taught accounting and sold accounting systems for a dozen years before making the leap to retail. Her plans for a clothing store, however, were dashed because in the early 1990s, downtown was home to about 13 clothing boutiques, she said.

That led her to women’s shoes and accessories, hoping to supply women with dress pumps, casuals, boots and slippers.

The business opened on Capitol Way in 1994 in the former Miller’s Department Store building — where Starbucks is today — a previously vacant building, hurt by the opening of the mall some years before. The mall and its pull on downtown had created several vacancies.

Downtown was struggling, Carras said about the time.

Bonaventure spent seven years on Capitol Way, then became the anchor tenant for the New Caldonia Building on Fifth Avenue, near Washington Street. It has been there ever since.

And business was good.

Her best year in the history of Bonaventure was in 2010, during the thick of the recession, and if she knew why, she’d teach it and get rich, Carras joked. Her second best year has been this year.

She decided early on to focus on women’s shoes, not men’s. It taught her a little something about running a business.

“You can’t be all things to all people,” she said. “And stay debt free.”

OLYMPIA DOWNTOWN ASSOCIATION

A week after opening on Capitol Way, Carras was asked to join the ODA, the organization that promotes and markets downtown as a destination.

Her first role was as treasurer, helping to clean up the organization’s books after they had gone untouched for all of 1993, she said. It took about 45 days to get things in order and so began a 19-year affiliation with the ODA, including two terms as president.

“The revitalization of downtown became important to me,” she said.

To that end, Carras has had a hand in organizing some signature ODA events, including Fall Ball, now the association’s largest fundraiser; Girls Night Out, a combination of encouraging people to shop downtown as well as a fundraiser for a local charity; and Downtown for the Holidays, a day of holiday activities designed to bring more shoppers downtown.

Carras also has been involved with the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce, the Thurston Economic Development Council and United Way of Thurston County.

United Way of Thurston County Executive Director Paul Knox said many small business owners, particularly in retail, simply are too busy to get too involved with other causes, but that was not the case with Carras, he said.

She did get involved, he said, and became a sponsor of a United Way fundraiser called “Straight from the Heart,” a formal dinner with wine pairings that takes place at Lucky Eagle Casino. The event now attracts more than 300 people and has gone from raising $15,000 to $140,000, Knox said.

“She really embraced it from day one and kept with it,” he said.

Lucky Eagle Casino General Manager John Setterstrom, who also worked with Carras over the years on events tied to downtown, called her a “tireless lobbyist for economic development.”

“I’m sad to see her go, but I’m also happy for her,” he said. “She’s worked hard and put in countless hours and time building that business.”

Downtown business owner Jeff Trinin echoed Lorenz’s comments, saying her energy for downtown will be missed.

“It has been my personal and professional honor to work with her for many years,” he said, the two of them connected by the ODA.

But he also said people’s lives are constantly in a state of flux, pointing out that his former business partner recently decided to retire.

“There comes a time for everybody to make changes,” he said.

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