Last weekend volunteers painted the old City Hall building and a downtown restaurant in Sweet Home, Oregon. The small town pitched the idea to Miller Paint Company as a way to revitalize the downtown and convince drive-through tourists to stop and spend money. Like many small towns in Oregon, Sweet Home has been struggling to achieve economic viability after timber mills closed down and COVID hit. City Manager Kelcey Young joins us to talk about why she thinks this new paint job could help.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. This past weekend, volunteers painted the old city hall building and a downtown restaurant in Sweet Home, which is about 30 miles east of Corvallis. Like many small towns in the Northwest, Sweet Home has been struggling to bounce back from the loss of timber mills. Recent COVID closures didn’t help. City leaders hope the fresh coats of paint could be one step towards revitalizing the downtown and convincing people who maybe are just passing through, to stop for a while. Kelcey Young is a City Manager,
she joins us now. Kelcey, welcome.
Kelcey Young: Thank you so much for having me.
Miller: Yeah, thanks for joining us. How would you describe Sweet Home’s downtown in recent years?
Young: So Sweet Home’s downtown has a few charming buildings and multiple cute shops and restaurants. It also has quite a few vacant buildings, right now, and it’s faced its challenges and definitely needs a little bit of love. We have some beautiful areas but we have some areas that are starting to look a little worse for wear.
Miller: How would you explain that? Why is it that some of those places are either empty or vacant or worse for wear?
Young: Part of the challenge is Sweet Home is a beautiful little town and it’s in a beautiful area. We’re right on the edge of Foster Lake and another 10 miles away is Green Peter Lake. We have South Santiam River that runs right through Sweet Home and it’s beautiful. So we have a lot of tourists that come through Sweet Home and either go to the lakes or continue on to Sisters or Bend. And while we have had multiple little shops and restaurants, over recent years with COVID and even before that, multiple businesses have shut down and now those businesses are sitting vacant. And the property owners, while they have been working on trying to improve those buildings and trying to bring in businesses, a lot of our businesses aren’t lasting. Some of them are, but it’s a struggle for most of them that are there right now.
Miller: You mentioned COVID there. How did COVID, in particular, affect downtown businesses?
Young: Well, I think COVID affected our town the way it affected many towns, when you don’t see as much travel or when you have various health concerns or even just the worker shortage. It makes it a lot harder for small businesses in particular to keep going.
Miller: So why focus on painting storefronts? Where did this idea come from?
Young: So this is an idea that we had all sort of been discussing a little bit, on how to just increase the optimism and bring new life into Sweet Home. Sweet Home, like I mentioned, is a town that’s in a very beautiful place, full of natural amenities. But like I said, tourists and visitors aren’t stopping here as much. And we have a program that provides grants to small businesses. It’s called our CEIP Program, to do some construction and other pieces. And even that, while certain businesses have been taking advantage of it, everyone is just feeling a little bit tired.
So we had the idea of how can we embrace our community, how can we lift it up, and how can we collaborate together, in order to do something that not only makes our downtown look better but also brings us together as a community. So this project was born, and then we reached out to Miller Paint and they offered to help sponsor us and to provide paint and color assistance and pr support. And then it just kind of kept going from there. And now we have a lot of businesses that are really excited about getting that fresh look. We have property owners that are now helping to collaborate with us. So they’re actually like working on their siting and then we’re coming in with painting. So we’re really excited about this. It’s another moment of hope for our town.
Miller: Was it a hard sell at all or was it easy? I mean, if you said, ‘Hey, we’ve got free paint, business owner,’ did everyone just jump at it?
Young: I would [for] say the majority, it was not a hard sell at all. The majority were very excited about this. We have had a couple of business owners who this almost sounded too good to be true. So I think they were a little skeptical about it and wanted to have a few more details. But for the most part, our community has really rallied around this project and has been pretty excited.
Miller: Who was doing the actual painting.?
Young: That is a combination of a lot of volunteers. In fact, on Friday, we had about 60 volunteers including 20 or so youth coming from Corvallis with the National Youth Corps, who came and painted, and then that’s continued throughout the weekend. So a lot of community members, some of the property owners and then definitely quite a bit of city staff. We’ve all been chipping and trying to help as well. But we also have gotten a great offer from Fitzpatrick Painting and Construction and they’re gonna be coming in later this week and helping us with painting as well.
Miller: Some professionals, in addition to the volunteer brigade?
Young: Exactly. And we’ve even had, we had Representative Jami Cate come out, we’ve had various council members. It’s been really, really fun to see how many people are joining us with this.
Miller: Well, what was the scene like over the weekend?
Young: It was fun. You’ll have to come out and visit us next weekend. But it was exciting. We had, I think a total of over 100 volunteers coming out. We had a lot of hours and we managed to paint three buildings over the weekend and not small buildings, pretty substantial sized buildings at that.
Miller: Well, which were the first ones on the list?
Young: So the first ones – we had our old City Hall space. This is a building that’s been sitting vacant that we have been mostly being used for storage. And we’re hoping that this can start making it more accessible to the community as well. We have some ideas on that project. And then we have the Osaka Japanese Sushi restaurant and that one just got finished. And then one of the neat things about Sweet Home is we have the Oregon Jamboree here. And so one of the buildings that is used to store some of the Oregon Jamboree equipment, also got painted.
Miller: But that goes to your earlier point and it seems like the city also owns a building which has just been used for storage, the old City Hall, and then another one storing things for the Jamboree …not the most obvious use for a downtown building, just storing stuff, not the most active use of it. What are your hopes for it – What the City’s building could be, the old City Hall?
Young: One of our ideas for the old City Hall and something that we’re hoping that we move forward is actually as a maker space and business incubator. We’d like to open this space up to budding artists and craftsmen, as well as those that are starting to create businesses, as a place for them to start their businesses,
start working on bringing in community. It is a beautiful art deco building that with just a little bit of love, we could open up for receptions as well as these, like I said, maker spaces. And we’re really hoping that can create additional businesses blossoming out from that, but also a great place for the community to gather. Our community market is held every Saturday right in front of that building, and we’re going to be putting in a small ‘pocket park’ right next to it. And so we’re, this is the start really of a much bigger revitalization project for us.
Miller: How do you plan to keep the energy going? Because what you’re talking about seems like a multi-year project that’s going to rely on a lot of ongoing energy on the part of Sweet Home residents. How do you intend to keep it up?
Young: So that’s a great question. One of the things that’s amazing about Sweet Home is we actually have a lot of volunteers and a lot of community spirit here in Sweet Home. So we tend to have many people wanting to work towards something.
So this way, we’re trying to develop a strategic plan that we can continue working on over the years. In fact, this painting project, this is just part one; the next part two for next summer is actually gonna be murals along these buildings. And so we’re hoping that will revitalize it even more. That will make Sweet Home even more charming and we’ll bring in even more people and more volunteers.
Miller: Kelcey Young, thanks very much for your time.
Young: Thank you, appreciate you having me.
Miller: Kelcey Young is the city manager of Sweet Home.
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