Building downtown stronger, one business at a time

By Emily Hamann

Jennifer Walters
Jennifer Walters

You don’t have to walk far in downtown Bellingham to see a “coming soon” sign in a storefront window. A major project, the renovation of Cornwall Avenue’s former JC Penney building, was just announced in September. The proposed project would transform the long-vacant department store into a mixed-use building, bringing more residential downtown, while reactivating nearly an entire block of the downtown core. And that’s just one of the incoming projects on Cornwall Avenue alone. Bellingham is changing quickly, and it’s Jennifer Walters’ job to help guide the way.

A year ago, the city and the Downtown Bellingham Partnership commissioned Seattle consulting company Downtown Works to study Bellingham’s downtown, and offer suggestions on how the city can best develop the dining and shopping options in the core downtown area. The company released a report at the beginning of this year. It’s first recommendation was for the partnership to create the new position of retail advocate — a person who would connect building owners and businesses, find new businesses to fill empty spaces and help implement the rest of the retail strategy.

In March the partnership announced that it had hired Walters. Walters is a Pacific Northwest native. Previously she lived in Bellingham for eight years starting in 1986, but has lived in around 20 different cities in seven states, including Jackson, Wyoming; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Bend, Oregon; Palm Springs, California; Boise, Idaho; and Austin, Texas. Along the way, she gathered a variety of experience in retail and business development, including working in multiple retail management positions for local and regional brands, including Jay Jacobs and Tesoros Trading Company. She has also worked in sales, event coordination, wholesale, design and has helped start small businesses. Originally, she came back to Bellingham to start a new small business, but leapt at the opportunity when she saw the retail advocate position was open.

Recently, Walters sat down with the Bellingham Business Journal to talk about her new role, small business and downtown. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What does a typical work week look like for you?

It varies. Traveling. The priority is to cultivate retail in downtown. So the way that can happen is to look regionally for quality operators.

I am part of lots of committees. So the economic vitality committee, the retail committee.

A lot of it is research, because finding quality businesses takes the research. It’s very much relationship building and trust.

A big part of my job is networking with downtown, whether that’s operators or brokers or building owners.

That’s constantly part of my week, is finding out what spaces are coming available. What new places are opening, how can I support them.

Even though we’re not a huge city, it’s still a lot. We have 52 square blocks down here — it’s a lot to keep track of.

So a typical work week is all over the place, and it’s an exciting job because of that.

What are some of the things about downtown that struck you, when you moved back?

I love that they’ve kept the authentic, historical charm that Bellingham has always had. Very excited to see Railroad flourishing with basically zero inventory for spaces. The restaurants that we have here, the game is so strong.

Just the sense of community, and that businesses are starting to thrive here again.

I was here when they built the mall. And so I watched downtown get sucked out. I watched the mall being built and then I watched businesses leave downtown. I’ve always come to visit over the years, but it really struck me when people started this young, entrepreneurial ecosystem and vibe. I just love that this younger generation is doing that. Because a lot of stores have declined to come downtown. They were scared.

But now you look at this younger generation of people, they’re like no, we’re going to take a chance.

And to see businesses that have been here forever — to see the Greenhouse, in those few months, before I even started this position, going out of business, but then immediately this fabulous couple came in and bought it and kept it open. So it was really a positive thing to see, and that’s what made me feel like I could open a store here.

What are you looking for when you go to other cities to find businesses that maybe want to open new locations in Bellingham?

It’s kind of quadruple duty when I go out traveling.

It needs to be a similar demographic to ours, something that fits in with our vibe. I look at the city itself where I’m going to visit.

Shops that are in downtown Bellevue aren’t necessarily going to be a fit for downtown Bellingham.

But a lot of places around the Seattle area are — Ballard, West Seattle. So I find the places that are probably more similar.

I never go out wanting to take a business out of an existing community. That is never, ever my goal. Because economic development has to be regional. As a whole.

Then it’s looking at how that city or town or street has marketed. Everything from their street presence, are they pedestrian friendly. I get examples. It’s fun to bring examples of clever, creative designs back. If it’s window signage, or murals, alley activation.

So when I go visit a place, obviously it’s my priority to cultivate quality businesses, but it’s also looking at the town, and how they operate, how does their downtown association operate. And then what elements can we learn from where I visit.

What other strategies do you use to find businesses that might want to open downtown?

Everything. It could be word of mouth, it could be somebody that knows somebody. It’s very based on relationships and networking. I can be going into Safeway to get a bottle of wine, and I end up talking to someone, and their great nephew wants to open a wine tasting room. This job is literally 24/7.

Going to public markets is huge. Saturday markets, farmers markets. That’s a great strategy, because some of those people are ready to move into a store or shop.

What are some of the challenges of opening a retail space in Bellingham right now?

Some of the barriers are spaces. We deal with some very large spaces downtown. Sometimes it’s tough for someone to do a very long and narrow 1,500-3,000-square-foot space, when they really just could do fine with 700 or 900 square feet. And really that I think is one of the biggest challenges.

What are some of the challenges that retailers are facing right now in general? Broadly, it seems like it’s been a hard time for retail.

It’s coming back though. Online is not the challenge. What’s happening right now, online sales are affecting the larger big box retailers. But what they’re doing is lifting up the smaller retailers. People want that tactile experience.

There’s been a disconnect because of technology. And now people want that connection back.

There’s a stigma that online has negatively affected the small business retailers. It’s actually the opposite.

How has retail, especially small retail changed in recent years?

People are now the makers. They’re manufacturing out of their businesses. I mean, just if you take a farm to table restaurant, that’s kind of how the retailers are doing it.

Take a business that’s downtown, like Apse Adorn, where they’re making jewelry and selling it. And that’s a big thing, because they still can have an online business, and yet now they’ve got a brick and mortar and tactile experience for customers to come in and try and feel and see. And I think that’s a big change. Businesses are realizing that people want to shop small.

One of my jobs down here is to help create more cohesiveness. I’m trying to fill that in so that when people come down here and shop, they can walk down and eat and shop and drink consistently. There’s not these big gaps.

What effect do you think the planned project to renovate the former JC Penney building project is going to have on downtown?

So good. First of all, we are desperate for residential density. And everything goes hand in hand. So with residential density, then the retail will follow, the small markets will follow, these really neat businesses that have to have the residential density in place to open. So it’s very important that I do my job now and be prospecting, because once that momentum starts, I want to make sure the people that do want to come in here and be a part of the community as far as running a business know about it in advance.

I think the momentum is just going to be great.

Nothing has been set in stone for the retail at the base yet. But the spaces can be custom built and I’m just putting the word out if anybody has ideas or wants to talk.

It’s going to bring the heart of Bellingham back.

How do you pitch Bellingham when you go out and try to convince businesses to open here?

The forward progress and economic vitality. The current projects happening. The need for retail in this town. All of the feedback, all of the surveys, all of the data points to success for retailers coming in right now.

We need men’s apparel down here. We need children’s stores down here. There is such a need here that it is an easy sell.

And it’s such an easy sell because of our proximity to nature. We have the San Juans in our front yard. In our backyard we have Mount Baker. We have an international city 45 minutes away. It’s gorgeous.

We have room for growth, and there are developers and building owners that are willing to work with incoming businesses.

And that is a really big sell for me. When I say, there is someone who is developing this property, if you need specific requirements, they’d be willing to talk to you on that. A lot of cities and towns have built and then waited for people to come in, where we’re at this pivotal point where we’re building as people are coming in, so they have that opportunity to have those custom spaces.

What types of businesses do you think we most need downtown?

All of them. I think we could benefit from everything. Definitely, if I can find some sort of apparel. I’m very interested in resale and consignment for men and women. It’s a massive trend.

Childrens is very big. Childrens activities, childrens shops, family-based.

We have room for everything. Even if there’s an existing business that’s similar, no two stores are ever the same.

The retail strategy found that many of the storefronts and facades downtown needed improvement. How can you help fix that, and how are you working to help business owners see the value in investing in their facades?

The first thing I did was I facilitated a seven-hour workshop at the Pickford. I invited 60 downtown businesses, we had 25 show up. I feel really good about that.

I hired a speaker and it was all based on exterior and street improvements, and interior merchandising.

It really helped give people ideas. It could be something little, like putting a planter outside, to vinyl in the window to new light bulbs. Little things like that to give them ideas.

A couple of the businesses took those recommendations from that seminar and applied them. They gave us feedback and they saw more traffic into their store and their percent of sales went up.

Another thing I do is I help with the storefront improvement grant. So that is $2,000 if someone wants to work on their awning, or put a bench outside, or do some sort of element or streetscape under their entryway, it’s a matching funds grant program specifically for the facade.

So if a business owner wants to improve the look of their storefront, what should they do?

It depends. I’m also working on another grant with Ketchup+Mustard that’s a branding and marketing grant. Part of that can be designing new signage for their windows.

So I can definitely be a resource, if not being able to help them myself, (I know) where to send them or what they need help with. The branding and marketing grant has been great, because that firm will do a marketing strategy. And sometimes that marketing strategy involves experience improvements. And it can be something simple, it can be a gallon of paint and a little elbow grease. There’s no bad improvements.

The retail strategy recommends that 40 percent of the downtown core be made up each of retail and dining. But it found we’re at just 27 percent stores, and then 34 percent restaurants and bars.

And I think we just upped our bars and restaurants. So I think the bars and restaurants, they’re all doing great. That’s the good news.

And people are still coming in and that’s great, I encourage all businesses to open up. I don’t think we can have too many of anything.

You don’t think we’re in danger of having too many breweries, or restaurants or bars?

No. I think we ride this wave.

And all those restaurants or bars give back to the community. They do great events, they do great cross promotions. They’re all very well supported. So no, I think the momentum on that is fantastic.

Why do you think bars and restaurants have grown so much faster than stores and retail?

Everybody’s got to eat and drink, and you can only do that in person, where there are still other retail shopping options. So it’s slower growth. But it is happening.

What is your ideal vision for the future of downtown?

A thriving, economically sustainable downtown environment. Filled with life and family and kids and activity and shopping. I just have to find the people who have the ideas and the money to back it up. And I’m open to talk to anybody. The possibilities come from anywhere. And that’s the beauty of it. People are excited and they’re jazzed to be here. And I think people are feeling that energy.

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