Spokane Journal of Business

Changes in Cheney: A downtown revitalization effort

Merchants association leads charge to generate activity, interest in town’s core

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-—Samantha Peone
Douglas LaBar, owner of The Mason Jar bistro and chairman of the Cheney Merchants Association, says an effort to kickstart interest in the small town’s downtown could have benefits for the entire city of 11,900 people.

A group of businesspeople in Cheney are sowing early seeds of a plan to re-energize the farm-and-college town’s downtown. 

It’s an effort that some involved say could have a blossoming effect for the entire city of 11,900 people that’s a 20-minute drive from downtown Spokane. 

Douglas LaBar, chairman of the Cheney Merchants Association, which is leading the revitalization efforts, says downtown Cheney ranges from roughly C Street to F Street along First Street. 

Some downtown buildings are either rundown or vacant, says LaBar. Also, many people don’t drive into the downtown area before turning in to the college.

Although in the early phases of the revitalization, the Cheney Merchants Association is planning a winter festival to be held in December. Board members plan to meet, hopefully in mid-July, to discuss a budget for the festival and goals to kickstart the revitalization, he says. 

The festival would tie in the city’s existing tree lighting ceremony and late-night shopping event, he says. 

‘There’s things going on. We’re just going to try and link them all together and also get some popup shops, window décor, lighting wreaths, and all that stuff to make it more of a whole shopping district throughout that season,” he says.

LaBar says both organization members and others met with representatives from the Washington State Main Street Program last week. In April, LaBar also attended a conference held by the program that took place in Port Townsend, Wash.

Revitalization downtown can cause a ripple effect across the community, he says. 

“The more you have going on downtown, the more that’s vibrant and thriving, the better everyone does even if they’re not in that core,” he says. “More people are just generally going to visit the town or get out into the community and see there’s stuff going on. So, it’s very easy from there to cross into other areas of town or other businesses.”

In addition to his role with the merchants association, LaBar owns The Mason Jar at the corner of First and F Street. The bistro offers baked goods, breakfast and lunch, coffee, beer and wine, and other treats. It’s also within the area LaBar says is considered downtown Cheney.

Cheney Mayor Chris Grover, who attended the meeting last week, says the winter festival could be similar to Cheney’s MayFest, which he estimates brought nearly 80 vendors to the area.

“Cheney Merchant Association, I think, has a lot of good energy right now,” Grover says.  

The association will be leading the efforts, with the city of Cheney and EWU supporting them, he says. 

“I think we can have some pretty good events downtown and try to bring citizens downtown,” he says.

Debbie Anderson, operations manager for Holiday Inn Express at 111 W. Betz Road, serves as vice chairwoman of the Cheney Merchants Association. Eastern Washington University’s main campus, at 526 Fifth, also has the potential to bring hundreds of parents visiting their college-attending children every week, she says.

“To give them somewhere to go and to walk around, and shop and see and do—I just think that would be a nice place to have it,” she says of downtown Cheney. 

Many people entering Cheney from the north via state Route 904 don’t drive far enough into the town to reach downtown, since the main turnoff to EWU is well north of the core. Consequently, many people don’t realize Cheney has a Yoke’s Fresh Market, Bi-Mart, and businesses downtown, she asserts.

“I just think that it (downtown) misses out on a lot of visitors really knowing that that is down there,” says Anderson.

Some topics discussed at the meeting with Washington State Main Street Program last week included increased signage, promoting businesses to fill empty storefronts, creating interest in those vacant storefronts, and holding events quarterly, she says.

Although revitalization efforts are in the early phases, Anderson says the Holiday Inn Express could affect them indirectly. 

She says the hotel plans to install a reader board inside the lobby this fall that will promote to its guests different restaurants, shopping spots, and other business types around First Street. 

Joan Mamanakis, co-director of the Cheney Historical Museum, handles information technology and social media-related tasks with the Cheney Merchants Association. 

Mamanakis says she’s not too familiar with the Main Street program, but she attended the presentation last week.

“Cheney has been essentially struggling since the freeway went in to re-identify itself,” she says.

She says the city of Cheney has undergone revitalization efforts in the past, but the new program is alluring because of the framework around it and because it’s structured to accomplish small steps.

“What we’re hoping to do is make the downtown area look a little more attractive to shoppers and visitors and look like it’s alive, rather than sometimes sleepy and empty and keep-on-driving,” she says. 

Mamanakis says one big theme throughout the meeting was creating strong links and communication between businesses, EWU, the city, and residents.

She says she’d love to see people from Spokane take advantage of low cost events in Cheney, many of which are offered through EWU.

Like Anderson and LaBar, Mamanakis says an attractive downtown makes for a healthy city.

More energy downtown helps the entire city, but “it also makes Cheney a more attractive place to live,” she says. “Whether you’re living here and working in Spokane, or you want to live here and work here, having a vital downtown with a number of different stores and things going on, and a nightlife that’s beyond college students and bars makes the city an attractive place to live and work and invest in.”

The Cheney Historical Museum was established in 1935 and operates downtown, at 420 First, she says. The museum also would benefit from a potential downtown revitalization through increased foot traffic. 

“When there’s people walking up and down the street past the museum, they come inside. A lot of people who visit walk by and say, ‘Oh look, you’re open!’ and they come in,” she says. 

Foot traffic also could bring more awareness to the museum, potentially attracting more volunteers, which could result in extending the museum’s hours, she says.

LaBar says the Main Street Program here focuses on four principles: design, economic vitality, organization, and promotion. It also provides a network of other communities that have undergone revitalization efforts through the program.

According to the Washington state Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation, which handles the Washington State Main Street Program, the principle of design involves the visual appeal of an area, including rehabilitating historic buildings, keeping streets clean, and other ways of beautifying an area. 

Economic vitality consists of developing a vibrant economy by identifying existing market factors and forming long-term economic answers to concerns. 

Organization consists of creating a framework for business owners and other players in the community to be represented well. Promotion involves events in the designated area, such as parades, shopping sales, or festivals, and also marketing to lure visitors and locals to that area, the state’s program’s webpage says.

“We’ll be using the tools they’ve already set out and applying them to our historic and downtown district,” says LaBar.

He says the Cheney Merchants Association represents businesses in the city, from home-based operations to brick-and-mortar establishments. 

It “gets the word out through advertisements, community engagement, putting on festivals or events, and getting people into our local businesses,” he says. 

Grover says a revitalization would be good for current local business and also promote new business in the area.

Plus, he thinks residents want a place in the area where they feel part of the community, a place to gather for family events or other activities. 

“It’s always good to have an energy downtown,” he says.

Samantha Peone
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