Creating the Downtown We Deserve (Part II)
Editor’s Note: Part one of this story can be found here.
On October 19, 2012 the First Christian Church on Fourth and A Streets in downtown Springfield became home to one of the most colorful events in the city, something that would repeat every Friday afternoon. The colors change depending on the season—sometimes one may find deep greens and purples, other times it may be dark reds and bright oranges. These bright, colorful, and nutrient rich objects—also known as fruits and vegetables—are stacked bountifully on tables in the vividly lit old sanctuary of the church. By the end of the night these bounties will be depleted as excited consumers pick up their locally grown organic produce: grains, fungi, and other locally produced treats.
Accompanying the bright colors of the room are the crafters of these amazing objects—the farmers and producers. From seed to table, local growers have cultivated luscious green kale, dark and rich root vegetables, nutrient packed carrots, and potent mushrooms. Coming together once a week to share their enthusiasm with the public, Marketplace@Sprout! is a year-round indoor farmer’s market.
Marketplace@Sprout! is just one example of how Springfield, Oregon is up-and-coming, and is just one of the ways the Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation (NEDCO) is contributing to the Springfield community. The convergence of the success of the opening of the Wildish Theater and the small projects implemented by the city government (see part I), along with the devastation of the economic collapse in 2008, gave Springfield the opportunity to reassess the direction of its community. NEDCO is actively working with the city to help ensure that this direction is not only different from the past, but driven by arts and culture, and most importantly, the citizens of Springfield.
Abigail Ofori-Amoah began working at NEDCO in 2011 in the field of program development. With a background in urban planning and community development, it was natural for her to recently take over the oversight of projects in downtown Springfield. “The economic collapse contributed to a lot of people seeing that we need to start doing things differently,” Ofori-Amoah says. “We can’t keep doing the same things that we’ve been doing before … Downtown Springfield and the way development [had] been going was going in a certain direction for so long, and I think there [was] this sense of hopelessness. It’s unfortunate that when things get really bad, like when you hit rock bottom, the only other way is up.”
NEDCO moved to Second and Main Street in 2008 with the intention of helping Springfield travel in that upward direction. NEDCO has a long history of helping build communities in the area: founded in 1979 in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood, the organization has the expressed purpose of “helping neighborhoods and families build assets through home-ownership, neighborhood revitalization, and business development,” according to their website. This private,not-for-profit organization completed a multitude of projects in Eugene before moving to Springfield, including purchasing and renovating the Hayse Blacksmith Shop/Brogden’s Hay, Feed, & Seed Store, which is now home to Red Barn Natural Grocery, and completing a series of affordable housing projects in Eugene and Springfield.
Renewed interest in the downtown corridor and efforts from the City of Springfield and NEDCO yielded the town the designation of a “Transforming Downtown” in October of 2010 by the State of Oregon’s Main Street Program, allowing Springfield to use the established “Main Street Approach” to help transform and improve downtown. This designation of a “Transforming Downtown” allows for access to federal funds allocated for the Main Street programs and façade improvements. NEDCO is working with the City to implement small changes in order to become a Performing Main Street, which is the next and final designation in the Main Street approach. The eventual goal for the Main Street program is that it will grow into its own 501(c)(3) entity, but for now projects within the Main Street program are administered by NEDCO with support from the City, downtown business owners, and the greater community
“I’m trying to figure out what kinds of new ideas I can bring to the table,” Ofori-Amoah says. “Creative ways to try and do little small redevelopment projects, and leave the larger scale ones to the city.” She laughs and claims that the NEDCO staff are like “Oompa loompas” for the city, that they’re there to help carry smaller projects. “We’re definitely trying to start on a smaller scale in order to make a greater change,” she says.
NEDCO, in adherence with the Main Street program model, has developed four committees to focus on each aspect of the Main Street approach. The Organization committee targets communication issues and volunteer recruitment. The Economic Restructuring committee is focused on supporting the existing small businesses and recruiting more companies, and it’s members include both John Tamulonis of the City Manager’s office and Tom Draggoo of the Springfield Renaissance Development Corporation (see part I ).
The Promotion committee is responsible for anything event related, including the Second Friday Art Walk. A distinct emphasis of the downtown Springfield revitalization has been using the arts as a platform for economic growth and development, Ofori-Amoah says. She notes that the Promotion committee is like the “event planner” of downtown, and the art walk is their foundation.
Building off of the success of the popular Eugene First Friday Art walk, Springfield, with the help of the Eugene Storefront Art Project (a non profit group whose mission is to replace empty Lane County storefronts with art while beautifying downtown, according to their website), decided that it was time to start an art walk in the Main Street corridor. In the last year the art walk has experienced rapid growth, seeing more and more people flocking to downtown on the second Friday of every month, and more and more businesses taking part in the event.
“People love the arts,” Ofori-Amoah states. “When you put art in anything it sparks interest. The art walk has been good at creating that sense of place and that feeling of a vibrant community… In the future I just see it getting bigger and bigger.”
Another downtown Springfield phenomena that appears to also be getting “bigger and bigger” is the Sprout! facility, which includes not only the Friday farmer’s market but also a community kitchen, Kitchen@Sprout!, two potential retail spaces, and the Hatch Businesses Incubator, Hatch@Sprout!, another project that materialized from NEDCO.
“Springfield is looking for ways to intentionally create more community linkage, especially in this downtown corridor,” Micah Elconin, Sprout! supervisor, says. “A farmer’s market is just a key component to that.”
NEDCO started Springfield’s seasonal outdoor farmer’s market five years ago. It started small but grew steadily. In that time NEDCO started to explore the idea of opening a business incubator focused on the food industry that would provide services such as training, technical assistance, reasonably priced office spaces, and access to financial resources, according to the NEDCO website. Then, in 2012 the First Christian Church approached NEDCO about buying their property on Fourth and A Street. NEDCO took the opportunity, and as the food business incubator idea grew into fruition in the form of Hatch, as well as the growth of the farmer’s market popularity, it seemed natural that the two programs would merge under one roof and find a permanent home in the former church.
Typically a project like Sprout! can take several years to complete, but according to Elconin it materialized quickly in Springfield for four reasons: “Incubator [Hatch!], successful farmer’s market, opportunity to purchase [the] church, and clear momentum in the local area to support the development of food hubs—NEDCO just kind of pulled the trigger and said ‘okay, let’s do this.’”
NEDCO picked just the right time to invest in the Sprout! project and purchase the church—today it seems to be all people can talk about, not just in Springfield, but in the Willamette Valley. For the City of Springfield, NEDCO staff, and potential businesses, Sprout! is a dream come true.
“Sprout! is just speechless for me,” Ofori-Amoah says. “I started here [at NEDCO] when the idea was in the making and we applied for grants for it … I remember the day we purchased the church, the first time I saw it, and literally when I saw that kitchen I started crying because you can’t believe that this idea actually became a reality.”
The success of Sprout!, the continuing success of the Wildish Theater and their partnership with the Academy of Arts and Academics charter high school (which has recently expanded to include a health and sciences building in one of the former strip clubs), the active and attentive staff of the City, and the influx of new businesses in the downtown corridor has turned the attitude of Springfield residence from hopeless to inspired.
In fact, “inspired” is the state of the City of Springfield in 2013, according to Mayor Christine Lundberg’s State of the City Address, which took place on January 16 at City Hall.
“There’s just been a lot of bad news [referring to the economic collapse of 2008] for people personally, for the city, for the country,” says Lundberg. “It’s just this last year when people have come up to me they’ve just said ‘oh, things are really happening in Springfield! We’re so excited, we just love the direction the city is going.’ When I hear those things it has made me feel inspired that people are—even though things could be better—happy. They see progress being made, and they’re excited about it. It’s inspiring to see that people, no matter what, have something that they’re looking forward to.”
Bart Caridio certainly felt the forward momentum of downtown Springfield when he chose to open the highly anticipated Plank Town Brewing Co. at Fourth and Main Street.
“Everyone was just so nice and helpful,” Caridio, also a part owner of the Whiteaker neighborhood’s Sam Bond’s garage and sole-owner of the Axe and Fiddle in Cottage Grove, says. “Dealing with the City has been incredible. It’s always fun to do something to help the underdog.”
Cardio has applied many of the lessons he learned developing Sam Bond’s Garage and applied them to the opening of Plank Town. Now, on any given night, Plank Town can be found packed with patrons. The Brewery features an up-scale menu highlighting local and sustainable products, and they brew their own beer on site, and the atmosphere is similar to Sam Bond’s in that it is family friendly, hip, and community oriented. Caridio hopes that it will only encourage more business owners to open positive establishments in the area.
While Springfield may still have many hurtles to overcome, it appears that all the right elements are working together to create a downtown that serves the needs of the citizens and supports local commerce and community engagement. The inspired state of the city is found in the thirteen citizens who didn’t give up on a seemingly impossible project, it is found in the hope and hard work of the staff at NEDCO and their team of volunteers, it is found in Bart and other business owners and their willingness to take a chance on a developing area, and it is found in a City that is excited about working with its citizens to incite small but meaningful changes.
Most of all it is found in the citizens of Springfield who continually choose to invest in their community; who eat, drink, and fellowship at Plank Town and other local establishments; who attend A3 performances at the Wildish Theater; who wake up at 5 a.m. to Jazzercise at be WELL.; who brave the rain to attend the second Friday Art Walk; and who are willing to see past a poor reputation to create the downtown that they do indeed deserve. “The attitude of people in Springfield is ‘We can do it!’” Mayor Lundberg says enthusiastically. “It doesn’t matter if we have a little bit of difference of opinion… we are more concerned about getting to our goals, and people are willing to compromise, and they’re willing to come together, and they’re willing to work hard.”