REEDSPORT — City Manager Jonathan Wright remembers a time when most of Old Town’s storefronts sat vacant.
He said five years ago, 90 percent of the storefronts that line Fir Avenue were empty.
“It was just a crazy scene when I got here,” Wright recalls.
He started putting props from the Discovery Center in vacant store windows to make it seem like something was going on inside and continued until those spaces started fill up with stores.
“We started noticing that people would stop and look in the windows,” Wright said.
Now, nearly seven years after he took the job, downtown’s vacancy rate is hovering around 30 percent.
But that’s not for lack of demand, according to Wright.
“We have a high demand still,” he said. “The ones that currently aren’t occupied is because they have some significant structural issues that we’re working on.”
Those issues, mostly roof repairs, will be fixed using funds from the Oregon Main Street Revitalization Grant.
The Reedsport Main Street Program, which began in 2014, first received a revitalization grant in 2017, and used those funds to renovate the second-floor in the Burdick Building.
In a 2016 interview with The Umpqua Post, Council member DeeDee Murphy credited then-Main Street Coordinator Katie Lockard with persistently contacting out-of-state owners and encouraging them to improve their properties.
Now, Murphy said new businesses will have a harder time finding a place to set up shop in Old Town.
“We didn’t think we’d ever have that problem,” Murphy said.
Wright credits grants as the catalyst for change in Reedsport.
“When I first got here people termed the community as ‘looking crappy’ or as ‘looking bad.’
And now fast forward, the grants were really kind of part of the nexus for change because it would allow us to engage and approach the landowners and businesses and say ‘listen what do you need?’” Wright said.
The city manager said the first round of facade improvement grants were given out in 2013. Since then he said the program has given out more than $40,000.
One of the major changes in the area was made possible through a more than $10 million state transportation enhancement grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Last year, ODOT began repaving several miles of state Highway 38 and adding sidewalks and bike lanes.
Work is expected to be complete by September.
As soon as the new sidewalks are complete, Wright said bronze benches and trash cans will go in, as well as 33 new planters with Umpqua River rock.
In addition, murals will soon bookend Old Town and a bronze elk statue is expected to be completed this year.
“By the end of this centennial year the downtown is going to look completely overhauled and new,” Wright said.
When asked how the city of Reedsport, with a population of around 4,000, was able to secure a multi-million grant, Wright explained his tactics.
Reedsport residents would attend grant meetings, sit in the front row and speak on the city’s need for funding.
“The whole front row of these meetings would be people from Reedsport,” Wright said.
He said the same technique worked to help get Fred Wahl Marine Construction a $3.4 million grant from ConnectOregon in 2016.
The grant helped the company expand and almost double its employment.
This year the city celebrates its 100 year anniversary.
It, along with many other Oregon cities, is grappling with how to move into the future without the logging boon that had previously defined its past.
“We’ve struggled so much as a community. I mean we were the highest. Our baseball and football team could not be beat. We were growing faster than anybody else, everybody had a new truck in the driveway. Down to what has unfortunately been termed as the lowest community in the state of Oregon,” Wright said.
The area still struggles with housing availability and a poverty rate that is one-and-a-half times that of Oregon’s, but Old Town is no longer a ghost town.
Businesses can see the potential in what’s happening in Reedsport.