SOUTH COAST — Earlier this spring, The World reported on Coos Bay’s downtown area showing signs of economic recovery by tracking new businesses and speaking with local experts.
The reporting revealed a relatively upbeat attitude from business community leaders regarding the vitality of the area.
“This is the most activity around here I’ve seen in 15 years,” said Coos Bay Councilor Stephanie Kramer, who chairs the city’s Urban Renewal Agency (URA).
Indeed, on the surface, Oregon’s largest coastal city by population appears to be on the road to recovery as the downtown area alone will add a total of six new businesses, with others filling gaps in and around it as the year progresses.
According to Tom Dixon, Coos Bay’s planning administrator, unlike the past two years, which saw several businesses shuffle in and out of various buildings downtown, the new ones moving in should be there to stay for the long haul.
“One of the indicators I’m seeing is that the people that are coming in now are spending money for upgrades which usually means they are in it for longer investment time,” he said. “I think that points to more stable tenancy for those spaces.”
And that stability is important for future growth and better business prospects, Dixon argued. “You always want to have options for new businesses but you also want to have a level of continuity and certainty that businesses are going to stay in the downtown area.”
Dixon said he was fairly confident the new businesses would stick around, as most of the companies setting up shop downtown are locally owned and operated.
Shaun Gibbs, economic development specialist for the South Coast Development Council (SCDC), said the new businesses should be a boon for the local economy but that market observers should temper their expectations about the influx of new businesses.
He said a lot of the new businesses that open in downtown Coos Bay — as well as neighboring North Bend — tend to bounce back and forth from city to city.
“Recently, there’s just been kind of a lot of shuffling,” he said, noting that local vegan restaurant Tin Thistle made the jump from downtown Coos Bay to North Bend due to a need for a commercial kitchen. “One thing about our area — the whole region and especially Coos Bay and North Bend — is that downtown commercial kitchens are very hard to find, when one comes up for rent, usually it’s taken pretty quickly.”
According to Gibbs, downtown areas in both city’s will always be desirable, largely due to the tourism draw that both locations receive from U.S. Highway 101.
He said companies were weary of drifting too far off from the highway’s main corridor.
“Usually when you stray even a block from 101 you see a drop in traffic,” he added. “It does affect the stores quite a bit. It is impactful. And I can’t blame them, honestly. “When you look at our economy and the amount of impact tourism has — even if it’s seasonal — and the draw from 101, I think that’s huge for driving business whether it’s a small or large company.”
Jim Berg, owner of North Point Real Estate and Development, is a sitting member on Coos Bay’s Planning Commission.
He said that while downtown in both cities are attractive places to open a business, the recovery process takes time, especially for small, relatively isolated communities like Coos Bay and North Bend, which have in many ways have still not fully recovered from even the 1980s economic recession.
“Certainly things are happening,” he said. “We’re just kind of waiting for some of the backstreets to start to fill in. It’s always pretty easy to get property leased right along (Highway) 101 but going back two or three blocks is a bit more risky.”
The fears associated with such risks will hopefully be alleviated as investors’ confidence in the economy rises, according to Timm Slater, executive director of the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.
“I think we can see from stuff going on currently is that a lot of people have a view of the economy moving in the right direction,” he said. “The (national) unemployment rate is the lowest it's been since the early 2000s, so there’s a lot of positive indicators, not just for the whole country but also locally. It’s more of a sign that in our area and the state of Oregon that (people) have expectations that things are gonna roll along better than they have.”
It is that newfound confidence from entrepreneurs and investors that Berg said he hopes will be capitalized on before more economic woe rears its ugly head.
“It’s just a matter of trying to move ahead before we have another backswing,” he said.