The Great, Big, Beautiful Pacific Northwest


September 10, 2018 | By Breanne Durham, Washington Main Street Coordinator, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation


Visit Seattle, courtesy of Alki Kayak ToursKayaking in the Puget Sound affords great views of the Seattle skyline. Visit Seattle, courtesy of Alki Kayak Tours

Washington Main Street will co-host the 2019 Main Street Now Conference in Seattle, March 25-27. Get to know our host city, state and Main Street communities through this special blog series. Conference registration opens November 1.

Shortly after I moved to Seattle three years ago, my now father-in-law asked with more than a little skepticism what I liked about my new city. Moving from my small Main Street community in Idaho to “Crane City,” as Seattle is currently known, was certainly something of a leap for me – both culturally and professionally. But my answer then is still my answer now when I’m asked what I love about this place: It is so, so beautiful here.

What a Beaut

Seattle is smack-dab in the middle of some of the Pacific Northwest’s most beautiful scenery. The city grew up along the banks of the Puget Sound, an inlet to the Pacific Ocean and part of the Salish Sea. Water is an inextricable part of this region’s history, going back to the original people, the Duwamish, whose former chief, Si’ahl, is the namesake of present-day Seattle. The fortunate among us live near the water, recreate on the water, and dine by the water. Rest assured there will be plenty of opportunities to enjoy the region’s waterways when you’re here in March – tours to Main Street Communities on islands in the Puget Sound, easy access to Pike Place Market and the piers from the host hotel, and lots of recommendations for excursions during your free time or before the conference kicks off. Also related to water… you will probably want to bring an umbrella. Because Seattle and because March.

Mount Rainier. Courtesy Janelle Walker
Mount Rainier. Courtesy Janelle Walker

A close second in my book, but a sound first for many others, are the Pacific Northwest’s mountains. To our west are the majestic Olympics and to our east the great Cascades. On a clear day you can see both glorious mountain ranges from any number of hilltops in Seattle. And as if panoramic views of mountains weren’t enough, the real pièce de résistance, the gem, the queen, is Mount Rainier. I’ve been told by three different cities that Mount Rainier is “their mountain.” Of course, we know that she is everybody’s (and nobody’s) mountain, but what intense pride in place that statement exhibits! Just wait ‘til you see her – you’ll get it.

City of Boom

While the mountains and sea provide reliable sources of beauty, joy and pride, the city itself is changing every day. Seattle is the fastest growing big city in America. Cranes dot the skyline, restaurants spring up like mushrooms in a wet forest (how’s that for a local reference point!), and homes are swept off the market before you have a chance to say “Zillow!”. With such rapid growth comes challenges and learning opportunities. How do you navigate intense demand for market-rate and high-end housing amidst gentrification and an acute homeless crisis? How do you balance historic and cultural preservation with density and sustainability goals? How does the growth of a city like Seattle impact small communities, both those nearby experiencing the ripple of the same boom, and those on the other side of the state facing disinvestment and brain drain? It’s an incredibly relevant time and place for our field to be convening to understand and seek solutions for these important questions.

Seattle’s Occidental Square. Photo by Olivia Brent, courtesy of Visit SeattleSeattle’s Occidental Square. Photo by Olivia Brent, courtesy of Visit Seattle

But all of this is not meant as a contrast between the beauty of the natural environment and the tumult of the built. On the contrary, there is a lot of beauty to be found in the city, too. Seattle is known for its distinct and tight-knit neighborhoods, each of which has its own story, its own champions, and its own vision for the future. Salty old fishing districts like Ballard that have become home to clusters of local breweries and chic retail establishments. A product of redlining, the Central District is home to historically African American neighborhoods which are working to retain their rich arts history through preservation of places like Washington Hall and the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. And, of course, there is Pioneer Square, “Seattle’s first neighborhood,” a beautiful National Register Historic District that has intentionally employed Main Street principles to maintain authenticity and camaraderie amidst unprecedented growth.

We’re going to do our very best to tell Seattle’s stories by inviting you into these, and many other, captivating places and neighborhoods throughout the city. But I’m telling you right now – you’re going to want to reserve time before or after (heck, how about both!) the conference to explore the salty air, the great outdoors, the music venues, the restaurants and bars, and the deep history that make this place so special.

San Juan Islands National Monument. Bureau of Land Management via FlickrSan Juan Islands National Monument. Bureau of Land Management via Flickr

Zoom Out

Right about now you’re probably thinking that this conference is all about our big, booming city, right? Wrong. We are wildly excited to show off our beautiful home – all 71,263 square miles of it!

Washington may be the most geographically diverse state in the nation. Travel across the state, as I often do, and you will encounter the rugged coast and rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula, islands in the Puget Sound, volcanoes of the Cascade Mountain Range, glacial lakes and forests in the north, arid desserts to the south, and the mighty Columbia River (which traverses the state, culminating in the Columbia River Gorge and ultimately the Pacific Ocean). And let’s not forget about Washington’s rich agricultural heritage, which yields some of the world’s best produce and grains (not least of which include grapes and hops!). My family from the Midwest will tell you that the Palouse region in Eastern Washington is worth a pilgrimage for anyone interested in some of the most picturesque, rolling wheat fields in the world. In one day in Washington State, you could (with unlimited energy and an iron constitution) ski, surf, cycle, kayak, hike, white water raft, windsurf, and hang glide.

Downtown Roslyn. Otto Greule, courtesy of Washington Trust for Historic PreservationDowntown Roslyn. Otto Greule, courtesy of Washington Trust for Historic Preservation

Spread throughout this richly diverse environment are 33 designated Washington Main Street Communities and another two dozen Affiliates of our program. Washington Main Street was established in 1984 by the venerable Mary Thompson, now a board member for the National Main Street Center. The program was managed by the state for over a quarter century until 2010, when the Department of Commerce experienced budget cuts and was prepared to jettison Main Street. Fortunately, another state agency, the Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation, rescued the program and established a contract with the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation to manage it. Since 2010, the Main Street Community network has grown nearly three-fold and local programs are reporting incredible returns on investment. A recent study by Stover & Associates commissioned by the National Main Street Center showed the Washington Main Street network’s return on investment at a whopping 1:13 for every state dollar spent on the program.

Bike race through downtown Walla Walla. Visit Walla Walla
Bike race through downtown Walla Walla. Visit Walla Walla

Suffice it to say, it is with buttons bursting that we invite you to discover our great state in March. Rent a car and drive out to Wenatchee, Chelan, and Waterville to explore beautiful lakes and rivers, plateaued farmland, and abundant apple orchards. Take the train down to the Oregon border to visit Vancouver, Camas, Ridgefield, and Stevenson for urban neighborhoods, mill towns, and wildlife reserves (and we certainly encourage you to show Oregon Main Street’s communities some love while you’re down there!). Hop a ferry to Whidbey Island and tour Langley, Coupeville, and Oak Harbor. And look out for a pre-conference excursion that will take you into the heart of Washington’s craft beverage scene – Walla Walla, the Tri-Cities, Prosser, and Yakima.

There’s a little something for everyone in Washington State, and we’re thrilled for this opportunity to show off the rivers and mountains, cities and small towns, and makers and innovators that make the Pacific Northwest so very great!

Main Street Now registration opens November 1. Learn more.

About the author: Breanne Durham moved to Seattle in 2015 to take a job with the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation as the Washington Main Street State Coordinator. Prior to working for the Washington Trust, Breanne spent five years as the Executive Director of Beautiful Downtown Lewiston, one of Idaho’s first designated Main Street programs.