Havre Daily News
The downtown is a vital core of any community. With changing times and a changing economy, however, that core can be affected in a negative way. The announcement that Wal-Mart is considering building a supercenter outside Havre has prompted Havre City Council members and people in the business community to ask what can be done to ensure that the downtown business district remains vibrant and competitive in a changing climate.
Merchants say the area is already a vital part of Havre, though there are some things that could be improved upon. Some cite the need for more customer parking, and others say there needs to be more promotion to get shoppers to visit stores downtown and stay.
David Shaw, who owns the Atrium Mall, said one positive thing in downtown is the number of locally owned stores.
"The big thing is all of the different ma and pa's downtown," Shaw said. "When you shop downtown you get the support of that local person. You also have the confidence that your money rolls over again instead of going outside the community.
"I kind of look at Havre as a big piggy bank. Every dollar spent here stays here. I'm 100 percent supportive of the downtown businesses. I do every last dollar of spending downtown that I can."
Shaw said he would support an effort to improve parking in the area. Owners and their employees need to have somewhere to park away from their businesses so that customers are able to park in front of the stores. He said area merchants should also look for ways to promote the area.
"We need to get people to know what's down here," he said.
JM Donoven Designs in Fine Jewelry owner Janine Donoven said she would support any effort to revitalize and improve the downtown.
"I'm all for downtown revitalization," she said. "The whole community has a lot to offer. We have a lot to showcase. I think anything we do from here on out will do a great deal for this community and the surrounding communities."
Hank Tweeten, who owns an auto body shop in town, agrees that parking is an issue that needs to be worked on. Downtown Havre already has a lot going for it, he added.
"I think a lot of it is, the employees and the people in the individual businesses, we've got to find a parking lot away from their businesses so customers can have better access," Tweeten said. "We've got a lot of good, unique businesses downtown that should be patronized. I think it looks pretty good downtown."
Tweeten's building also houses Raymond James Financial Services. Recently, workers replaced some windows in the building, and Tweeten says work will continue through the summer to dress up the facade. He plans to add fresh paint and replace additional windows.
"It's part of a long-term strategy for this building," Raymond James owner Greg Dugdale said. "We're bringing it back up to look like a vital part of the community."
Bear Paw Development Corp. executive director Paul Tuss said efforts by individual business owners to dress up their establishments can have a domino effect and encourage other owners to do the same.
"Often it just takes one owner to spruce up their property," Tuss said. "It's a matter of protecting your property, and it's a matter of civic pride."
Tuss pointed out that the downtown is already a vibrant, essential part of the community. It contains a mix of historic buildings, residential properties, unique businesses, lending institutions, park space and the main traffic corridor.
"There's a whole host of components that make our downtown and any downtown a thriving part of the community," he said. "People generally believe that downtown Havre is a critical component in the overall health of the community. People want it to remain strong and vibrant."
As for organized efforts to ensure that downtown Havre remains vibrant, there are several possibilities.
One is a tax increment finance district, which would set aside tax money collected from businesses within its boundaries to be used for a variety of improvements. An ad hoc committee of the Havre City Council considered the possibility several months ago, but the efforts have stalled. Before the city can implement a TIFD, an urban growth plan must be created.
Council member Terry Schend said the money needed to develop such a plan isn't available right now.
"We've got to do some work on the plan. ... It's going to cost quite a bit of money, and those dollars aren't available right now," he said.
There's also an assumption that there may be environmental contamination beneath the surface of some parts of downtown, and those worries prompted some people to become concerned about pushing for development in the area, said City Council member Pam Hillery, who also was on the ad hoc committee.
"It played a part in the discussion, and people voiced concerns about doing development downtown that might bring contamination to light that we don't have the resources to deal with. Contamination problems eat up money. There was concern about even trying to entice development when you don't know what you're faced with," she said.
Hillery said the TIFD issue is not dead yet.
"It definitely could be revived," she said. "We kind of left it hanging when we were trying to decide what kind of (urban growth) plan we needed."
Another possibility is a business improvement district, Bear Paw Development planner Craig Erickson said. Great Falls has several such districts, he said. Businesses within the district contribute on an annual basis and the funds can be used for a host of projects. Sidewalks and sprinkler systems are just a few of the possibilities.
The funds can be used to pay for an expensive improvement to an individual building that might otherwise keep a business away, Erickson said. For example, if a historic building is in need of a costly fire suppression system or an elevator, BID funds could pick up the tab in order to entice the business owners to locate there when they might otherwise decide to look elsewhere, he said.
Another possibility is the Main Street program put together by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The program uses a four-point approach to revitalize downtowns across the country. The Montana Legislature passed House Bill 481 this session, which created a statewide Main Street program to assist communities in developing a local program.
"It creates an entity whose sole purpose is to revitalize and market a downtown district," Erickson said. "I think that would be something worth exploring."
Successful Main Street programs often work in states that have a statewide program, he added.
Tuss said the program has shown positive results elsewhere.
"I know that the Main Street program has been very effective in assisting other communities to revitalize their downtown core," he said.
The Havre Area Chamber of Commerce is a member of the Main Street program, and executive director Debbie Vandeberg said the steps taken by the Legislature may pave the way for an organization to get up and running in Havre.
"There are some wonderful success stories regarding the Main Street programs and what came out of a commitment and desire to make community changes," she said in an e-mail interview.
Such an organization was created in Butte in 1999, and its members have worked to improve the atmosphere of the city's uptown, which suffered a shock in the 1980s with the closing of the copper mines. The group has since worked to diversify the economy, Mainstreet Uptown Butte executive director George Everett said.
While the community of Butte actually went forward with creating a nonprofit entity, other towns like Havre may benefit from simply studying how the program works, he said. Main Street focuses on a four-point approach of design, promotion, organization and economic restructuring.
The point, Everett said, is for members of all portions of the community to work together to make the area more attractive, get people to visit and put potential investors in contact with resources.
"I would encourage any community that is looking to revitalize its downtown to take a look at the Main Street approach," Everett said. "They might benefit from looking at the design."
On the Web: www.mainstreet.org