Walla Walla, Washington

Washington | 2001 Great American Main Street Awards® Winner | Posted: 4/2/20001

In the early 1980s, downtown Walla Walla was in a state of decline. Two malls opened on the outskirts of the city, Sears and J.C. Penney left town, and the business-district vacancy rate neared 30 percent. To address the situation, in 1984, concerned business and property owners organized the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation and adopted the Main Street Four-Point Approach™ to downtown revitalization, focusing on design, organization, promotion, and economic restructuring.

A streetscape project served as a focal point for historic preservation; renovation projects followed on its heels. The private sector responded by reinvesting in downtown, beginning with the complete renovation of the Liberty Theater, a critical component of a business retention effort aimed at keeping the Bon Marche department store downtown.

The rehabilitation and renovation of the Die Brucke Building in 1993 is considered the proud cornerstone of Walla Walla's rebirth. Its renovation enabled downtown to retain Bon Marche as an anchor by accommodating its 4000 square foot expansion. The Walla Walla Foundation worked with the owners of the Die Brucke Building and Bon Marche, allowing both buildings to share the cost of elevator access to the upper floors.

Another renovation success is the multi-million dollar Marcus Whitman Hotel and Conference Center, creating downtown hotel rooms, a 300-seat conference center, 30,000 square feet of high-tech office space and the American Motorcycle Museum.

These rehabilitation projects have resulted in $25 million of private-sector investment and $15 million by the public sector. Aggressive business recruitment efforts and building restorations have reduced the vacancy rate to just four percent today. Eight hundred net new jobs have been created and 125 new businesses have opened or expanded downtown since the revitalization efforts began. Aggressive historic preservation efforts have encouraged 249 downtown property rehabilitation projects.

The most important change in the last 16 years has been the dramatic shift in the public's perception of downtown. While few people seemed to care about Walla Walla years ago, today it is a symbol of community pride.