Downtown Washougal: So cool that it’s getting hot?

Posted in - The Columbian on May 25th, 2016 0 Comments

By Adam Littman, Columbian Staff Writer
Published: May 22, 2016

WASHOUGAL — For Alex Yost and Kevin Credelle, it started with a text.

“What about Washougal?” Credelle, 31, wrote to Yost, 29.

The Portland couple were looking for a new place to live and open a restaurant. They searched Portland and other nearby cities in Oregon, but spaces were too small or too expensive.

Then Credelle saw a posting for space in Washougal that mentioned a cafe and bookstore nearby. He looked up the city, and the first item that popped up was news of Amnesia Brewing moving its operations from Portland to Washougal. He thought a microbrewery would be a good neighbor to have, and it made him think moving to Washougal could actually work. He sent the text.

“We drove out here and everybody was super nice,” he said. “We drove up Washougal River Road, and it’s like, ‘There’s a horse eating flowers on the hillside in the sunshine. That’s great.’ ”

Even better, they noticed there wasn’t really a brunch restaurant in the downtown area. “Everybody is opening restaurants in (Portland),” Credelle said. “It’s going to continue to happen, but 25 minutes away, there’s a beautiful town that has potential and a need.”

Their restaurant, OurBar, opened three-plus years ago, and is now a popular breakfast and lunch spot. It’s also emblematic of a downtown that is rapidly changing, growing in size and trending younger. Washougal may be on its way to becoming the youthful, hip hub of Clark County, thanks to young entrepreneurs like Yost and Credelle.

About 20 new businesses have moved into downtown Washougal during the past five years, most within the past three, City Administrator David Scott said. More than 250 new jobs have been created in that span. Another 75 to 100 jobs are coming in the next 18 months, Scott said. Not all of the new jobs have come from new businesses, either. Some existing companies have expanded.

“We as the city can facilitate, but it takes entrepreneurs to do development and bring business here,” he said. “That’s a nice spirit to see. Some of these businesses are starting off here, and others are moving here. It’s pretty neat to see businesses start here and really take off.”

A new reputation
Downtown Washougal hasn’t attracted much buzz in Portland. Those who’d been here thought it was sleepy at best and dangerous at worst.

“What can we do to convince people this isn’t the wrong side of the tracks anymore?” Credelle said. “There definitely was that animosity toward downtown Washougal because it used to be chain link fences around empty parcels of land, and that was supposedly Main Street.”

The way to change that reputation, Credelle said, is to get people to Washougal so they can see the new downtown.

Wes Hickey is a big player in changing downtown. His company, Lone Wolf Investments, owns many of the downtown buildings housing these newer, younger businesses. He built Washougal Town Square, 1700 Main St., which has 22,000 square feet of retail space, 25,000 square feet of office space and a 13,000-square-foot landscaped public plaza, and is home to a range of companies, including those in transportation, real estate and digital media. He also owns a building at 1887 Main St. that is home to OurBar and other businesses, including a yoga studio, an advertising agency, a boutique clothing store and a sushi restaurant.

“That’s a nice mix,” Scott said. “It’s providing services to the community, but not all in just one sector. There is a theme of creativity.”

Hickey said he’s looking at an “entrepreneurial approach to building a community” in Washougal.

“We’re trying to assist the community and build a foundation,” he said. “The community will decide if the direction is what it wants to follow. People believing in a vision and pursuing with passion is when great things happen.”

That’s partly what led Hickey to lease so much of his space to young entrepreneurs.

“You need young, energetic, creative people in your communities,” he said. “They will build interesting things. You need to have people who are willing to try.”

It’s also why he wants to get younger people into Washougal to work and live. Hickey said that “interaction is critical,” and giving people places to congregate and talk is what helps birth great ideas, ideas that can lead to great businesses.

“In economic development, people are too hung up on chasing results,” he said. “You develop a great community, and great things will come of it. Did anyone recruit Amazon? Or Microsoft? Nike?”

Community as engagement
Yost said there’s a lot of talk about community in Washougal, which leads her to ask what exactly community is.

“Community is participation and it’s engagement,” she said. “It’s activity. Community is self-sustaining. Washougal will have matured once we are really self-sustaining, that there’s an innovative draw to different industries, like all the people who are occupying the Town Square building. There are some really neat, cool Web design places that are there. Just being able to draw more businesses and more individuals who are like that, and then getting them to open their business here and then start actively engaging within the community.”

Washougal has attracted a variety of businesses since the revitalization began, from a cool brunch place that sources ingredients from local farms to Immersive Media, an interactive digital imaging company that works a lot with 360-degree video for clients including National Geographic, Conan O’Brien and Taylor Swift.

When Ryan “Boomer” Boomhower opened 3rd Heart Tattoo at 1830 Main St., he was unsure of the response he was going to get. He was pleasantly surprised by how welcomed he was.

“I’m excited to see where this goes,” he said. “I feel like I got in on the ground floor of this new wave.”

On his first day of business in 2014, he wondered if he’d made the right move. Hickey stopped by with some flowers, and the shop wasn’t fully set up yet. Boomhower nervously tried to tell Hickey about how the shop would look, and Hickey stopped him.

“Ryan, just have fun,” Hickey told him.

Since then, that’s what it’s been for Boomhower. He said the downtown business owners are like a family. Yost said Boomhower is now the only tattoo artist who can work on her. The Yoga Barre studio is next to OurBar and regularly holds an event called Barre to Bar, where after a class, the group heads across the street to Amnesia.

“I’ll have a beer over at Amnesia or 54?40′ (Brewing Company),” Credelle said. “We try to support local businesses. We wanted to grow with the community. We wanted to be a part of the community. We wanted to take our dog to the dog park. If I’m going to be behind the counter, I also want you to see me walking down the street, down to the dike trail or out near the Steigerwald (Lake National Wildlife Refuge).”

When Yost and Credelle told people they were moving to Washougal, they both said they got a lot of “Why Washougal?” questions. However, talking to people more, Credelle said he found out a lot of visitors come to Washougal to hang out and spend the day by the Washougal River.

“Everybody’s coming out here, and nobody’s talking about it because nobody wanted to give up the secret,” Credelle said. “We have friends that come out from Portland that refuse to write anything (on social media) about the spot, about OurBar, about downtown Washougal, about anything that’s happening, because they’re afraid that it’s going to turn into a monster. They see it as that. They’re like, ‘They’re on the cusp of something, and we don’t want to give up our no-wait brunch, our beer by the river.’”

Credelle expects it to change, though. Not only is the downtown developing. The city is home to interesting events, such as Weird Beer on the River, a fundraiser for in-home care agency CDM Caregiving Services, in which brewers bring their oddest beer concoctions to a festival featuring live music and food.

Growth is coming. Hickey said Lone Wolf and a partner are expected to break ground this year on a Main Street project with retail space on the ground floor and nine apartments above.

Earlier this year, the city announced that Stevenson Off Leash Dog Park, 2801 Addy St., will close on Nov. 1. It’s part of a 15-plus acre property that was sold in 2012 for $7.8 million to East Village Investors, a limited liability corporation run by Lone Wolf. Hickey said there are no immediate plans for the property, but some possible designs include space for living, working and recreation.

“Diversity attracts people, diversity of people, diversity of experiences,” Hickey said. “We’re trying to create an environment that is attractive to people and interesting to people.”

What isn’t interesting to people in Washougal, however, is trying to be the “next Portland” or “next” wherever.

“Portland can be really polarizing, and I think what we try and really stick to is, Portland is working,” Yost said. “There are successful pieces of that city, and we really want to draw from what’s working, but also really still focus on Washougal as its own unique, awesome place. We’re not trying to become Portland. We’re not trying to become Vancouver or Camas. We want Washougal to be itself, and Washougal is kind of like a teenager right now. We need to figure it out. We’re trying on different hats, we’re wearing different styles of clothing. We want to be a part of what Washougal will become, and I think we’re still in the defining stages.”

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