During my time as a reporter at The Chronicle, I was always fascinated with the continued revitalization of downtown Centralia. Though I’m not a journalist anymore, I still maintain that fascination and am eager to keep up with the goings-on there.
Downtown Centralia has seen a great deal of success in the past couple of years especially, and it just takes one drive along Tower Avenue to see what’s going on. The marquee on the Fox Theatre is a microcosm of downtown, itself being a brand-new symbol of a historic property in the middle of a giant overhaul. Further along the street, fewer and fewer vacant spaces exist and some businesses that just got on their feet a few years ago are beginning to emerge as mainstays.
It remains to be seen whether economic success is happening on a large scale, but the most promising sign is that reports of businesses in the downtown core closing are very few and far between.
That’s why I was somewhat surprised when I saw that The Station, a coffee bar in downtown Centralia, shut down abruptly the other day. Staff posted a note on the door that the recently renovated and re-branded coffee stop — I believe it was the first sit-down coffee lounge in the Twin Cities, and I don’t count Starbucks in that category — that it was closed and they thanked customers for their business.
I’m not exactly sure what caused its closure, partly because I don’t work there and also because I didn’t stop there much. Maybe it was the fact that the coffee shop market in Centralia is pretty well diversified already, and maybe it was product quality. I’m not sure, but if anything, I believe it should have been in prime position to succeed if for no other reason than its location directly across Tower Avenue from the Fox Theatre (which has become a huge draw in the past year especially with its twice-monthly movie series).
It’s interesting that I bring that up because I really have never said (and I was the business and economy reporter at the paper) in the three years I’ve lived here that any portion of downtown has been primed for any remote amount of success. The economy sucked a lot of the life out of downtown for awhile, unemployment rates skyrocketed and it was downright tough to generate any amount of money.
But three big things that have all taken place recently have turned that story around almost completely:
1. The Fox Theatre’s continued draw in terms of tickets sold, events held and general interest in the continued renovation
2. The recent sale of the Wilson Hotel and the restoration project of the hotel and annex with a pretty aggressive timeline
3. Centralia Square Ballroom & Hotel’s renovation as a hotel and wedding venue that is booked to the gills
There’s a common thread among all those: renovation. People have ponied up some serious cash because they have a vision that their projects can succeed, and they’re doing it for the right reasons: aside from the business opportunities, they’re all investing in the heart and soul of a town.
Back to the now-closed coffee bar: if someone were to come in and turn that into something unique downtown, it might take off. But it has to do one or both of two things: draw foot traffic and make enough of a profit to be sustainable. Those go without saying, for sure, but I want to expound upon the foot traffic concept briefly…
I’ve always personally noticed that places that do well and stay open might not necessarily be making a ton of money, but they’re drawing a lot of people for whatever reason. A popular example where I lived in Springfield, Missouri was an 80’s-themed arcade called 1984. They only charged $5 for someone to play all the games they wanted all evening, and it was for that reason the place was packed every time I went.
It was a great idea because the fact the place was full all the time would draw more people over to see what was going on. Activity is contagious.
I’m not saying someone should throw an 80’s-themed arcade in downtown Centralia — okay, maybe I am — but if you see my point, it would be really cool to see something become a center of cultural activity that could sustain itself.
My friend Lucy, who co-owns Santa Lucia Coffee across Locust Street with her husband Justin, chimed in on my Facebook wall the other day that she would like to see Centralia College open an extension of its library there. That fits in so well with the theme of being a hub of activity and even extends it by bringing an entirely different sector of the population downtown that otherwise might not go: young adults who otherwise wouldn’t take a second look at an antique shop or other business they might have just glanced by as they rushed past in a car.
The culture in downtown Centralia is varying, and it is interesting to note that low-income apartments and luxury lofts are within mere blocks of each other. I wouldn’t call it gentrification just yet, but even five/six years ago there were no lofts downtown. Now you are attracting a sector of the population that, hopefully, will stay downtown. But more on that point itself in a future post as I’ll explore the concept of new urbanism and how I think it could benefit Centralia.
This has been just the beginning of a bunch of unfinished thoughts and concepts I had in a reporter’s notebook as I had wanted to do somewhat of a story series on the revitalization of Centralia. I want to start a series on this blog about rethinking the culture of Lewis County’s towns as it pertains to growth, the economy and our area’s perception. This is just the start of that, and hopefully in future posts that will be coming along quite shortly we can facilitate some cool dialogue.
My next blog on this subject will pertain to some challenges downtown Centralia faces with being removed from the I-5 corridor and whether or not the new sports complex will actually be a benefit to downtown. Stay tuned.
Got any thoughts? Leave a comment and let’s talk!