Main Spotlight: Whales, Housing, Beer, and Amazon

November 13, 2018 | Main Spotlight: Whales, Housing, Beer, and Amazon | By Breanne Durham, Washington Main Street Coordinator, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation 

Farm fields and cascades in the summer heat at Skagit Farm Lands. Photo credit: Roseanna Dana

Washington Main Street will co-host the 2019 Main Street Now Conference in Seattle, March 25-27. Get to know our host city through this special pre-conference blog series. Conference registration is now open!  We encourage you to take advantage of the early-bird, member rates, and the new special rate for civic leaders.

There are so many different faces of Washington State. We have incredible natural resources, some of the best craft beverages and produce in the world, and major global investment; and we also have dark marks on our history, polarizing growth, and a housing crisis. The greatest challenge of planning all of Main Street Now’s field sessions has been finding ways to authentically tell a wide diversity of stories from this beautiful, complicated state. With registration now open, I hope you’ll look at the offerings and find a field session (or two or three!) that speaks to you.

I’m particularly pleased that seven of the field sessions to be offered in March will take place in designated Washington Main Street Communities. I asked Main Street directors from a few of those destinations to share what they wanted you to know about their respective field sessions:


whale_center_banner.jpgPhoto credit: Langley Main Street Association

Michaleen McGarry, Langley Main Street Association
Field Session: A Whale of a Tale (Sunday, March 24)

What is the important story that this tour aims to tell?

It sometimes takes thinking outside the box to see value in what your town has to offer and its uniqueness, but it is well worth the effort. From its humble beginnings in 2014, with the help of Langley Main Street and other strategic partners, the Whale Center opened its doors, with amazing growth since. In 2019 alone, the Langley Whale Center is projected to welcome more than 30,000 visitors. 

How is this topic uniquely Washington? How can it apply to all?

While the gray whale migration is unique to this area, the idea of tapping into your natural assets can be applied to almost any Main Street organization. Truly believing that working together for the betterment of the entire community is what Langley is all about. We are the little city that could. By working with all the stakeholders within the community, our Main Street program not only works, but excels.

What else about your Main Street are you excited for people to experience?

While March may not be the best time to see our gardens, we take great pride it the transformation that occurred since rehabbing all our sidewalks and bump-outs in the downtown corridor and would love for others to see them as well as provide input and ideas for future projects. Our gardens provide a naturally beautiful backdrop to our quaint seaside town while delicately displaying how much the community takes pride in its city.


36632323100_3312eb2ede_k.jpgA walk along the docks of Olympia. Photo credit: Orin Blomberg

Todd Cutts, Olympia Downtown Alliance
Field Session: Downtown Housing & The Unhoused (Tuesday, March 26)

What is the important story that this tour aims to tell?

Throughout the nation, Main Street Communities are struggling with issues of homelessness and street dependency. These issues are often accompanied by mental health and drug addiction issues. This session will share the experiences of how the City of Olympia, Olympia Downtown Alliance, and the social service community collectively and individually attempted to address these issues.

How is this topic uniquely Washington? How can it apply to all?

There are both best practices and unproven strategies being employed in Olympia. Learn how these strategies succeeded (or didn’t) and what we learned.

What else about your Main Street are you excited for people to experience?

While these intractable issues impact the success of our downtown, there is also new investment and new businesses entering the marketplace that fit the ethos of Olympia’s downtown.

Mount Vernon

43514615_1989972674404179_2892920521240870912_o.jpgPhoto credit: Skagit Valley Malting

Ellen Gamson, Mount Vernon Downtown Association
Field Session: Growing with the Grain (Wednesday, March 27)

What is the important story that this tour aims to tell?

Main Streets are the heart of their surrounding communities, and as such, are affected by changes in their broader environs. In 2013, Gov. Inslee designated the Skagit Valley as an Innovation Partnership Zone (IPZ). The goal of an IPZ is to encourage collaboration between researchers and private industry to foster entrepreneurship and grow a more robust local economy. Our tour will include a number of the partners in our Skagit Valley Value-Added Agriculture IPZ, including Skagit Valley Malting, Skagit Valley College's Master Brewing Program, and the WSU Bread Lab, as well downtown businesses that are connected to the yield of this rich agricultural environment: bakeries, breweries and distilleries. 

How is this topic uniquely Washington? How can it apply to all?

While craft brewing may not be exclusive to Washington or the Northwest, the industry has grown at a great rate in our region. Certainly, the concentration of efforts and resources brought to bear in Skagit County through Washington State's Innovation Partnership Zone program (also employed with great success in Walla Walla Wine Country), is a model with proven success that other areas of the country can learn from.

What else about your Main Street are you excited for people to experience?

I am particularly excited to share with attendees one of our newer businesses, Valley Shine Distillery, already expanding to a second location just over two years after opening in our downtown. Our guests will also get to see underway the newest renovation of an historic building in our district: the former Lyric Theater is will be undergoing it's re-purposing to District Brewing Company. Not insignificantly, this new brewery will open onto our gorgeous new Riverwalk Park, which is part of the recent Flood Wall Protection Project that is removing our district from the 100 Year Flood Plain and further spurring economic revitalization in our historic downtown. 


Gig Harbor

from_fb_3.jpgPhoto credit: Gig Harbor Downtown Waterfront Alliance

Mary DesMarais, Gig Harbor Downtown Waterfront Alliance
Field Session: Show & Tell: A Best Practices Retail Tour (Sunday, March 24)

What is the important story that this tour aims to tell?

How do small, independently owned businesses compete with the likes of Amazon? This tour will stress the message of where your store starts – it is not your windows, it is not your front door, it isn’t even the sidewalk in front of your business or the curb appeal. Today small businesses must “start” online – every store needs to have an online presence that sells their business and offers the “hook” to get people to come to their physical location. Then the business owner needs to continue their story with the proper layout and traffic patterns of their business, effective lighting, merchandising and window display, knowing their customers and what makes them return, and more.

How is this topic uniquely Washington? How can it apply to all?

How a Main Street organization can support their local businesses is a story with universal importance to all Main Streets across the country. All small businesses deal with the issue of how to “fight” Amazon and be the best business model they can be, and all Main Streets are doing what they can to encourage and support their local business owners. You will learn in this tour about the investment we made by bringing in specialists in the field that could share their wealth of expertise and spend one-on-one time in businesses throughout our Main Street District. Our merchants listened, many followed the recommendations of the consultants, while breathing new life and energy into their businesses.

What else about your Main Street are you excited for people to experience?

You will see and experience our fishing net sheds that stand as a true representation of our community’s cultural and economic heritage. Visitors will also discover that our beautiful, waterfront community is a popular destination for a vacation or “staycation” with an abundance of shopping and dining opportunities, moments in history to explore, and an array of water-based activities available.


Washington Main Street communities reflect our state’s diversity – they are located on islands, in the middle of wheat fields, and at the bases of mountains. There are several local programs that have been working the Main Street Approach consistently since the mid-eighties when Main Street came to Washington, and each year we have new programs springing up all over the state, each with their own set of assets and challenges. I hope you will visit them – either through a field session on your own time – when you’re here this March for the 2019 Main Street Now Conference!


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.