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Fighting the bottom line

Amid slew of business closings, city looks to retool its economic approach


by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Though West Linn is fighting to create a more hospitable business environment, even popular establishments like the Historic Willamette General Store have been forced to shut down recently.Isa Flores is perfectly content in Oregon City.

Nine months after he was forced to move his auto shop away from West Linn — its home since 1991 — and across the river to Oregon City, Flores’ shop is still thriving. Many of his clients followed him across the arch bridge, and he’s picked up a steady stream of new cars to service as well. The new garage space in Oregon City is larger than what he had in West Linn, and it sees plenty of traffic on Main Street.

But if he had the opportunity? Flores says he would return to West Linn in a heartbeat.

Amid the vast web of past and present businesses in West Linn, Flores’ auto shop was a success story. Starting from scratch, Flores built it into a thriving enterprise. It wasn’t the bottom line that forced Flores over the river, but rather a land owner who preferred to install a Beer Cave convenience store in place of the garage. With the help of some loyal customers, he found a new home in Oregon City and barely skipped a beat.

Other businesses haven’t been so lucky. In April, the Sweater Shoppe Etc. in the Willamette area shut its doors for good. Another staple of Willamette Falls Drive, The Historic Willamette General Store, closed in January, with owner Ryan Dato citing lagging sales. In February and March, respectively, Russ Auto Care and the Thai Linn Restaurant shuttered as well.

To put it simply, West Linn’s close-knit community feel may breed loyalty to certain businesses and keep owners like Flores yearning to return, but it also creates difficulties as those very businesses fight to stay alive. West Linn has been described as a bedroom community for a reason: What little commercial land that exists is largely used up.

“The majority of calls I get about people looking to expand in the city, my response is simple,” said West Linn Community Development Director Chris Kerr. “’We don’t have any areas for you.’”

Apples and oranges

If turned away by Kerr, business owners need only to look a few miles southwest to see an area where business is booming.

In Wilsonville, the population nearly doubled between 2000 and 2012. Even in the midst of economic downturn, the city’s economic base grew to a point that, in 2010, 16,029 workers commuted into Wilsonville from the surrounding area. Comparatively, just 1,043 people both lived and worked in Wilsonville, and 5,114 Wilsonville residents commuted outside the city for work, according to a residential land study conducted by the city.

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - The Sweater Shoppe, Etc., another Willamette area business, shut down in April.

By attracting such a large workforce from outside its borders, Wilsonville is, in a way, the inverse of West Linn.

“They’re flat (in topography), and that location next to the freeway helps tremendously,” Kerr said. “And they’ve had room to grow. They’ve had land and opportunities.”

Beyond simple good fortune, Kerr said, Wilsonville has also benefited from an emphasis on economic growth over the years.

“They just processed and received an urban reserve designation for the Frog Pond area,” Kerr said. “They’re growing and expanding — West Linn isn’t doing anything like that.”

Wilsonville and other cities like Tualatin, Gladstone, Oregon City and Canby have also utilized urban renewal tax finance programs to redevelop land. The improvements to Main Street in Oregon City, for example, were funded by an urban renewal program.

“West Linn doesn’t do anything of that nature,” Kerr said. “We don’t provide financial incentive or anything like that ... Wilsonville spends a lot of money in that regard, but they see it as an investment.”

Kerr expects urban renewal programs will be suggested as part of West Linn’s upcoming arch bridge-Bolton redevelopment project, and he also cautioned that comparing West Linn and Wilsonville is like “apples and oranges.”

“Our issues are much more geographic,” Kerr said. “You can’t copy the Wilsonville model.”

A gem on the river

The city may be constrained by its geography, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t working to improve its business climate.

Kerr is at the center of that effort, spearheading the regulatory code streamlining project while also playing a central role in the arch bridge-Bolton area redevelopment effort. On a day-to-day basis, he has become something of a “liaison,” as he puts it, from City Hall to the business community.

“I think there’s been a pretty significant change in culture at City Hall to be more business friendly,” Kerr said. “And to try to work a little bit more, particularly with the businesses we already have. ... I field two to three calls a week from, usually, existing businesses, but sometimes it’s external businesses looking to come here.”

If a business manager is having a problem, especially of the bureaucratic nature, Kerr is usually the first to hear about it.

“And I try to work them through that process,” Kerr said. “I can make a phone call to the (city) engineering department to find out about what’s holding up a problem with a water line extension ... if there’s a special use permit someone needs for an event and there’s a problem in (parks and recreation) with coordinating, I can call public works.

“I can kind of be that person to do those different things. And it’s what most cities try to aspire to when they’re really trying to be more responsive to the business community.”

Kerr

Kerr’s expanded role — West Linn created the community development director position in January — is part of the City Council’s ongoing emphasis on economic development in West Linn. Earlier this year, economic development was listed among the city council’s primary goals, as it was in 2013 and 2012.

Though Kerr said economic development will never have a significant impact on the city’s property tax rate — which is capped at a permanent rate of $2.12 per thousand in assessed property value — an investment in development would still have other benefits: Namely, it will increase the city’s tax base.

“It means more revenue, which is good. ... It doesn’t change the tax rate,” he said, “but it’ll make it less expensive for the city to put in improvements the whole community will share.”

The focus this year centers on the arch bridge-Bolton planning project, which is funded by a $220,000 grant from Metro and is expected to be complete by the spring of 2015. West Linn requested the funding last fall to support its efforts to facilitate redevelopment in the arch bridge-Bolton area, a project that runs concurrent to the redevelopment of the former Blue Heron Paper Paper Company across the river in Oregon City as part of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project.

The city’s goal is to create a plan for the Bolton Town Center, which would be a hub for community activities, commerce and housing, without sacrificing any of the community’s fundamental character, or its relationship with the environment.

“(That area) is incredibly underutilized,” Kerr said. “It’s kind of a gem where you can see a lot of things happening.”

A trickle of new arrivals

Even with the arch bridge-Bolton project in its early stages, new businesses continue to trickle into West Linn. Just this past April, Southwest Portland resident Julie Deters moved into a space along Highway 43 next to Chase Bank to open Jules Espresso Café.

“I had a place in North Portland,” Deters said. “And it got broken into several times, and I thought maybe when the lease ended I’d move to some place a little more solid. Twenty-five thousand cars go by here a day, so I thought this sounded good. And it’s really pretty.”

Deters described the very qualities that attract businesses to West Linn in the first place, and said she had no problems getting the café ready to open.

“Everything was good,” Deters said. “I like the community, it’s very nice. People are very friendly and positive. A lot of people have said, ‘We’re hoping you stay, to be successful.’”

So young is Deters’ business that she has yet to look too far into the future, and what challenges might lay ahead.

“Just attracting people, that’s the main thing,” Deters said. “And when I get a (storefront) sign up there, it will help.

“I really don’t know yet what I’m going to need to do to stay open ... I’m hoping this is a business, like people have been telling me, that they need.”

A divided city

Moving forward, new additions like Jules Espresso Café likely won’t come very often, even with the arch bridge-Bolton project in full swing. Kerr’s says “dramatic change” isn’t on the horizon for the city’s lineup of businesses; there simply isn’t room for it.

That still leaves more than 700 licensed businesses — about half of which are home-based — for the city to oversee.

Kaycie Bingham took over last February as the new owner of the popular Willamette Coffee House, and said things have gone better than she would have expected.

by: TIDINGS FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Kaycie Bingham and her family took over at the Willamette Coffee House in February. Though business is steady, Bingham said it's difficult to attract customers from outside the Willamette area.

“Being that we purchased a business that was already in operation, the process with the city of West Linn was pretty flawless and easy,” Bingham said.

The most distinct challenge is topographical: The coffee house’s customer base is almost exclusively from the Willamette area it calls home.

“West Linn seems to be divided by a freeway and Rosemont,” Bingham said. “And as a result, there is no common city center area where people gather. We have found that often times when we speak of the coffee shop to people from the other side of West Linn, some have never heard of it despite its 16 years in existence.”

It’s an issue that’s hardly limited to the coffee house. Deters, the new owner of Jules Espresso Café, said she had yet to venture up the hill and didn’t know there was a Safeway or Albertson’s in town until someone told her.

“It’s as much about topography as it is anything else,” Kerr said. “The truth is, if you live in Robinwood or you live in the north part of town, it’s faster for you to go to Lake Oswego than it is for you to drive around town and come to Willamette. It’s just a reality.

“We’re not going to have a single downtown in West Linn.”

Nowhere to grow

If West Linn will never have a downtown hub, some wonder if economic development is worth prioritizing in the first place. During planning commission hearings regarding the code streamlining project last year, a number of residents voiced concerns about the city becoming overcrowded and losing its “bedroom community” feel.

But Kerr emphasized that the goal isn’t to expand the city’s business boundaries so much as to better utilize what is already in place and fill a city retail vacancy rate that currently hovers between 4 and 7 percent.

“We have boundaries that are set, they’re fixed,” Kerr said. “We can’t grow in either direction outwardly, and almost all of the areas within our urban growth boundary have been annexed.”

Yet within the land that is available, Kerr sees plenty of opportunities, including the construction of West Linn’s first hotel. An amendment included in the recently approved code streamlining project would list hotels in the “permitted use” category, as opposed to “conditional use,” to ease the application process.

And whether it’s a hotel or some other form of development, Kerr believes growth can only benefit the community — both by enhancing the city’s tax base and increasing quality of life.

“It really comes back to the bigger picture that people want more choices and diversity in where they live, where they work and how they get around the city,” Kerr said. “And economic development is one of the ways you get there.”

But when it comes to fostering consistent growth, the city has a long way to go.

“Without a mixture of uses, without a mixture of housing types, without the diversity of land uses, you don’t get any diversity of employment,” Kerr said. “It drives people away, it drives employers away from West Linn, it drives businesses who are trying to expand out of West Linn.”


By Patrick Malee
Reporter
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by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - In February, Russ Auto Care became the second repair shop to leave West Linn within the past year.