Mayor Tom Scribner’s guest column published last Sunday raised some important questions about the efficiency of multiple organizations serving a range of business-related industries in Walla Walla.
Unfortunately, it also presented a simplified view of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation’s mission, the diversity of our operating revenue and full scope of the work we do. A deeper, more accurate understanding of DWWF is important, especially today as we work hard with the Downtown community that is being severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’d like to provide a more accurate picture of the important purpose of our organization and the unique role it fills in our community.
The Downtown Walla Walla Foundation was formed in 1984. Our mission is to promote the history, culture and commerce in the downtown. Our purpose is to maintain a comprehensive downtown revitalization strategy following the Main Street Four-Point Approach structure, which includes implementing a balance of activities in the areas of organization, promotion, design and economic vitality.
We promote our downtown through events, including the weekly summer Farmers Market, Wheelin’ Walla Walla, the Sweet Onion Festival, and the newly added Brewfest that brought over 700 customers in to downtown businesses during the quiet season.
These events generally attract a healthy mix of our local community and visiting tourists. In total, between the special events, parades, and Farmers Market, our efforts bring over 30,000 people to our downtown core each year.
However, events and marketing are only a small piece of what we do. Through our design efforts, we advocate for the preservation of our historical buildings and the creation of a beautiful downtown space for both locals and visitors to enjoy.
This starts with small efforts, like the downtown banner program that currently celebrates our Walla Walla School District seniors. It includes support for landlords and developers as they consider purchasing and renovating our historic buildings.
We also tackle the big design challenges our downtown faces, such as how to restore Heritage Square as a community center.
Through organization, DWWF is a central point of contact and advocacy for all the stakeholders in downtown. From business owners to city officials to our local community, everyone benefits from a vibrant downtown. We work closely with the city of Walla Walla on infrastructure, planning, and beautification efforts.
Our efforts include close partnerships with the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Wine Alliance and Visit Walla Walla. Each of our unique missions play together to create a place that people love to live, work, and play. In coordinating our efforts, we make our Valley stronger for all residents.
At this uncertain time, perhaps our most critical purpose is economic vitality.
Businesses are closing. Jobs are leaving town. Even before COVID-19 came to our community, downtown had taken a huge hit with the closing of Macy’s. We are working hard with our downtown merchants and building owners to mitigate the pandemic’s impact and help ensure we again have a vibrant, successful downtown when this passes.
A vibrant downtown attracts visitors, yes. But it also attracts businesses as they consider relocating to our community. It attracts students to our three amazing colleges. It attracts retirees who want a walkable, unique city to live in.
We’re able to do all this work with a lean staff of three due to a variety of funding sources. Our primary funding comes through the Washington State Main Street tax credit incentive program, which allows local businesses to receive a 75% tax credit on donations made to a designated Main Street program.
These funds can only be used in the downtown core and can only be donated to a designated Main Street program. Lodging Tax funds make up 25% of our budget and are used to market the events that make our community vibrant, including parades, summer concerts, and more.
Membership, both from local business and community partners, accounts for just 6% of our total budget.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we have worked hard to serve all downtown businesses, regardless of membership status, and will continue to do so for the immediate future.
Before the revitalization efforts downtown in the 1980s and 90s, downtown Walla Walla wasn’t a place you would think to visit. The downtown wasn’t somewhere you would go for your morning coffee, or your date night, or your concert. You may not have chosen to locate your business there. You may not have returned from a weekend visit to Walla Walla to tell all your friends about how amazing this little city is.
These efforts, led by the DWWF in partnership with private business interests, public agencies, other economic development organizations, and community volunteers, have created the downtown heart of our community.
DWWF played a critical role in downtown’s revitalization then, and its works since has supported a vibrant downtown that is enjoyed by residents and tourists alike.
Especially now, in the midst of the pandemic’s impact here, DWWF is uniquely positioned to support and encourage the rebuilding of a strong, successful downtown district that supports our community.