Worst over for Auburn’s downtown

August 11, 2005 

Downtown Auburn will celebrate its past this weekend, but business owners also appreciate recent economic growth. After the SuperMall came in and a Boeing downturn hurt the area's economy, redevelopment is starting to make the area profitable again.

RUSS CARMACK/THE NEWS TRIBUNE

Auburn Mayor Peter Lewis had a cluster of frustrated business owners in front of him last fall. And he couldn’t have been more delighted to hear their news.

The antique dealers complained that the rents were too high and they simply couldn’t afford their leases anymore. They wanted Lewis to fix this.

As Lewis recalled the story last week, he wasn’t inclined to oblige.

“This is what you want to hear,” he said. “Antique dealers will go into a downtown area when no one else will.”

The rents had indeed climbed from an average of $10 to $15 a square foot over the last decade. And Auburn’s main street – and the city of 47,500 does indeed have a Main Street – that formerly housed about six antique stores now has half that number. The rest relocated to other buildings around the downtown core, according to city business leaders.

About 230 businesses are located in the city’s downtown core, which falls between Fifth Street Northeast on the north and Cross Street East on the south.

It’s a downtown that has weathered the creation of the SuperMall of the Great Northwest 10 years ago.

“That was like 10 Wal-Mart’s coming in next door,” said the city’s Chamber of Commerce president, Mike Morrisette.

Five years later, thousands of Boeing Co. employees received layoff notices as a result of the air travel slowdown created by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Finally, with the opening of the city’s rail station in 2000, redevelopment of Auburn’s core began. That $20 million project led to other redevelopment spinoffs, including a $3 million retail construction project in 2003 on the site of the old Truitt Building – the first privately funded new construction in the city’s business district in more than two decades.

Since then, the old J.C. Penney’s site off Main Street was redeveloped two years ago into an apartment complex and salon, Safeway has expanded its downtown store, and Auburn Hospital has expanded.

David Comstock, who has run Comstock’s Bindery & Bookshop off Main Street since 1984, said foot traffic plunged to a trickle after the Boeing layoffs. But it has started to recover.

Debbie Luce, head of the Auburn Downtown Association, said that when she took over as executive director a year ago, there were many empty storefronts.

“Now I can count on one hand the number of available spaces on Main Street,” she said.

Competition for retail space is expected to grow as the redevelopment of the old Ace Hardware store reaches its first milestones this year.

The $11 million development, known as Project Ace, will include a hotel, conference center, spa, museum, housing, a retail center and a 5,000-square-foot indoor water park.

The project, which will redevelop almost the entire block where Cavanaugh Ace Hardware stood for almost 100 years, will change the character and face of this quintessential old-style downtown. The first phase of the project will be completed in late October, and the hardware store will move to a temporary location, said owner Pat Cavanaugh. The north side of the block, which faces Main Street, will be torn down in October or November. A grand opening for the project is expected in the fall of 2006.

Cavanaugh, who is the fourth generation to run the hardware store at 26 E. Main St., said he’d been looking for a redevelopment opportunity but had trouble finding interested investors. That is, until former Microsoft executive Ben Errez showed up with this idea.

The hardware store, which opened in 1908, will still exist but in a smaller version of the current 10,000-square-foot shop, he said.

He doubts that customers will notice the difference, since “you do about 80 percent of your volume on 20 percent of your inventory,” he said with a laugh.

Just down the street at Rottle’s Apparel & Shoes, Jim Rottle said he’s noticed business has been definitely picking up the past few years thanks to redevelopment efforts.

Rottle watched as the first shoppers of the morning wandered into the clothing store that he manages with his brother, John.

“It always seems like two steps forward and one back, but it’s getting better,” he said.

AUBURN DEMOGRAPHICS

Population: Approximately 47,500

Number of businesses in downtown core: 230

Median household income: $50,447

Median age: 33

Employment by occupation (out of a civilian labor force of 93,447):

 • 17.9 percent professional

 • 17.2 percent administrative support

 • 16.1 percent service

 • 12.6 percent sales

Source: Auburn Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau, City of Auburn

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