When Jen Albright-Burns moved out of Longview in the early 2000s, she remembered the downtown corridor being largely abandoned.
She was impressed by the revitalization to the area when she came back in 2019, and specifically sought a downtown space in The Merk for her boutique crystals and decor shop Forest Stone and Sea, which opened in 2020.
“I think there’s a generation of new young business owners who want to be here and make things happen,” Albright-Burns said.
Real estate data shows more businesses are downtown than 15 years ago, but local owners want to see additional efforts to drive customers downtown and curate the look and businesses in the area.
Commerce Avenue and the surrounding blocks of the downtown Commerce district are the subject of renewed attention from the Longview City Council. Later this week, city officials are scheduled to vote on whether to lift a moratorium on new downtown businesses, as well as create an easier process for options like food trucks, outdoor entertainment and walk-up restaurants.
People are also reading…
The business moratorium was enacted in January after some council members and business owners voiced concerns about the growing number of downtown places, like nonprofits, that are “not complimentary to for-profit businesses,” as the city ordinance describes it.
The ordinance paused the majority of new permits and licenses for the area so planning officials could review what type of entities — like businesses, nonprofits and membership clubs — should be downtown and how zoning rules affect them.
The changes being considered by the city council right now would allow drive-thru windows and outdoor entertainment businesses downtown and make it easier for food trucks and other restaurants without indoor seating to open by avoiding special public hearings. Congregate care facilities, such as assisted living homes, would not be allowed downtown.
Other changes push non-retail uses from Commerce Avenue onto other streets. Businesses including mixed-use housing developments, membership clubs like the Elks Lodge, religious assemblies and community centers would face 12th Avenue and 14th Avenue instead of Commerce Avenue.
While housing is already allowed on the higher floors above buildings downtown, mixed-use developments could provide housing on up to 50% of the ground floor of a building as well. Local commercial real estate broker Paul Young said adding residences downtown could increase foot traffic to businesses.
“What residential uses allow is more people who are not just working down there but living there, or are just around to frequent businesses and restaurants,” Young said.
Young works for Fuller Group based in Vancouver and has been a commercial real estate broker in Longview and Kelso for 15 years. When he started booking office spaces and businesses downtown around 2007, the area had a 30% occupancy rate and a perception that drove many entrepreneurs he worked with to immediately reject the area.
“Back then, I would not have been able to see how it got from there to here,” Young said.
Young presented a report about the current business environment and its effects on Commerce Avenue to the city planning commission in March while they were considering pausing new businesses from opening downtown. In that report, Young said the downtown corridor has closer to a 90% occupancy rate at the moment.
Longview began working to actively rehabilitate the area around 2010. A report on downtown revitalization led to initial parking changes, including the shift to free on-street parking. A combination of local funds and state and federal grants supported streetscape improvements in 2014 to beautify several blocks of Commerce Avenue.
Young said the businesses that opened around that time and have stuck around created a template for other stores.
“Once business owners started seeing other businesses going in, who had the confidence to go into downtown Longview and succeeded, that changed the perception for a lot of people,” Young said.
Hopscotch Toys owner Pamela Hayes-Kong said her business still feels unstable three years into its existence due to limited foot traffic. Hayes-Kong said she loves her location in The Merk and the building’s support network, such as offering discounts for showing a receipt from another store.
At the same time, it isn’t unusual for her to go through a full weekday without making a sale because there isn’t a lot of regular foot traffic.
“It’s not a main street that people drive through all the time. You have to want to come downtown and purposefully shop here,” Hayes-Kong said.