Ask any random group of people in Lacey, Tumwater or Olympia what they think of downtown, and you’ll likely receive a wide variety of perspectives. Some will love it. Some will hate it. Some see exciting potential. Some see impending doom.
But ask that same group a simpler question — “Where is downtown?” — and almost everyone will point to downtown Olympia.
Why? Because Olympia has the only real downtown in urban Thurston County.
It’s a historic center that’s the heart of our metropolitan area. It’s a place with character history, creativity and diversity that is central to our civic identity. Without it, we’d be Anywhere, America.
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Our neighboring cities wish they had downtowns. Lacey hopes its Woodland District will grow into one; Tumwater sees Capitol Boulevard and the old brewery property as a future downtown. But neither of those dreams will come true overnight.
Downtown Olympia exists today, and it needs help.
A recent survey of Thurston County Chamber members gives some insight into its problems:
• 54 percent of respondents believe downtown’s future as a first-rate destination is not at all promising; 46 percent believe it’s moderately to extremely promising.
• 43 percent feel slightly to not at all safe while downtown; 38 percent feel moderately safe, and 19 feel very safe.
• Asked how downtown could be improved, the chamber said responses fell into three categories: “alleviation of noncongruent social behaviors, support for business development and private investment, and increase police presence.”
The chamber’s survey surely doesn’t represent the full range of public opinion, but it’s probably not far off.
A recent increase of empty storefronts and the closure of several businesses have put an exclamation point on the perception that downtown is in trouble.
But there are hopeful signs of change. This week, Compass Rose owner Paul Shepherd announced he would reopen a toy store in the space recently vacated by Wind Up Here.
Developer Walker John is renovating the former state Department of Personnel building to eventually house Thurston First Bank, a new brewing pub and 19 market-rate housing units on the second floor.
Another developer, Columbia Heights Partners LLC, plans 138 market-rate apartments in a seven-story building behind Olympia Federal Savings on Columbia Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues.
Those two developments might be game changers. More upper- and middle-income residents living in the downtown area could stimulate new retail ventures and improve the success rate of downtown start-ups
Some people will oppose those developments as “gentrification,” but we think it’s a question of balance. We enjoy downtown’s quirkiness and diversity, but we don’t think downtown can survive without a broader mix of income levels.
Nor can it thrive without a coherent, humane set of solutions to the plight of people who are homeless, mentally ill and/or addicted. And, of course, the city of Olympia will need to redouble its efforts to combat drug dealing, crime and anti-social behavior.
On balance, we’re cautiously optimistic, because it’s clear that people are passionate about improving downtown and paying attention to its long-term needs.