When Jen Albright-Burns left Longview in the early 2000s, she remembered that the downtown corridor was largely abandoned.
She was impressed with the revitalization of the area when she returned in 2019 and specifically sought space in downtown The Merk for her crystal and decor boutique Forest Stone and Sea, which opened in 2020.
“I think there’s a generation of new, young business owners out there who want to be here and shake things up,” Albright-Burns said.
Real estate data shows more businesses are downtown than 15 years ago, but local landlords want to see more efforts to bring customers downtown and organize the look and businesses of the area .
Commerce Avenue and the surrounding blocks of the downtown Commerce district are receiving renewed attention from Longview City Council. Later this week, city officials are due to vote on whether to lift a moratorium on new downtown businesses, as well as create a simpler process for options like food trucks, on-site entertainment outdoors and walk-in restaurants.
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The moratorium on business was enacted in January after some council members and business owners raised concerns about the growing number of downtown venues, like nonprofits, that “are not complementary to for-profit businesses,” as the city ordinance describes.
The order suspended the majority of new permits and licenses for the area so that planning officials could consider what kind of entities – like businesses, nonprofits and membership clubs – should be the focus -city and how zoning rules affect them.
Changes currently being considered by City Council would allow drive-up windows and outdoor entertainment businesses downtown and make it easier for food trucks and other restaurants to open without indoor seating by avoiding special public hearings. Congregate care facilities, such as assisted living facilities, would not be permitted in the city centre.
Other changes push non-commercial uses of Commerce Avenue to other streets. Businesses, including mixed-use housing estates, membership clubs like the Elks Lodge, religious assemblies and community centers would face 12th Avenue and 14th Avenue instead of Commerce Avenue.
While housing is already permitted on upper floors above downtown buildings, mixed-use developments could also provide housing on up to 50% of a building’s ground floor. Local commercial real estate broker Paul Young said adding residences downtown could increase foot traffic to businesses.
“What residential uses allow for is more people who are not just working there but living there, or are just there to patronize businesses and restaurants,” Young said.
Young works for Vancouver-based Fuller Group and has been a commercial real estate broker in Longview and Kelso for 15 years. When he began booking offices and businesses downtown around 2007, the neighborhood had a 30% occupancy rate and a perception that caused many entrepreneurs he worked with to immediately dismiss the neighborhood.
“At the time, I couldn’t have seen how it went from there to here,” Young said.
Young presented a report on the current business environment and its effects on Commerce Avenue to the planning commission in March as it considered suspending the opening of new businesses downtown. In that report, Young said the Downtown Corridor currently has an occupancy rate closer to 90%.
Longview began work to actively rehabilitate the area around 2010. A report on downtown revitalization led to initial parking changes, including a move to free on-street parking. A combination of local funds and state and federal grants supported streetscape improvements in 2014 to beautify several blocks of Commerce Avenue.
Young said businesses that opened around this time and remained created a model for other stores.
“Once business owners started seeing other businesses come in who had the confidence to come to downtown Longview and were successful, it changed the perception of a lot of people,” said Young said.
Hopscotch Toys owner Pamela Hayes-Kong said her business still felt unsettled for three years due to limited foot traffic. Hayes-Kong said she liked her location in The Merk and the building’s support network, such as offering discounts for showing a receipt from another store.
At the same time, it’s not unusual for her to go an entire weekday without making a sale because there isn’t much regular foot traffic.
“It’s not a main street that people cross all the time. You have to want to come downtown and shop there on purpose,” Hayes-Kong said.