Despite the bitter cold weather on Wednesday afternoon, I put on my less-than-warm jacket and wandered the downtown blocks of historic Tooele that lie just north and south of the Transcript-Bulletin’s building.
I just had to get out and see downtown Tooele, because downtown and I have a special relationship. I stare out my office window and listen to its cries of pain and shouts of joy daily. Walking the heart of old downtown is like visiting with an old friend.
At least once a year, I drive Main Street from 1280 North to 400 South and complete an inventory of retail space. I note every operating business and write down every vacant space. To do my inventory of the historic downtown area, I have to get out of my car and walk the area, including Vine Street, on foot. It takes the better part of an afternoon to complete my annual survey, which is why it’s something I usually do in the spring so I can avoid the cold weather that nipped at my nose Wednesday.
At my office, I have a file full of notes on the downtown area, including names and addresses of property owners compiled with help from the county recorder’s office. I have talked to many of these property owners and discussed their buildings and the plights of owning a very old building in what has become a low-rent area of town. But downtown Tooele is not without hope.
I noticed on this stroll that the shops on Vine Street seem to be thriving. Some shops on Vine Street come and go, while others start out there and move to a new location when their business grows.
On Main Street, as one place closes another one opens. I walked past a new overhead garage door shop that popped up out of nowhere recently. However, there are also places like the psychic reading storefront that has been empty for years.
News of the closing of Stowe Family Music stirred a response in my heart, kind of like when you get bad news from the doctor about a family member struggling against the odds with a slowly advancing debilitating illness.
The news of the defection of Grinders from their prime location in the downtown area to the city’s north end cookie-cutter strip mall abyss was hard to take. I never shopped there, but their departure felt like a betrayal to a noble cause.
However, one visit to Grinders’ new location and I could not fault the owner for his decision to relocate. The new place was clean, modern, vibrant and bright. It looked and smelled good. There was parking available right in front of the store, but the shop still had Main Street visibility.
As I walked by 29 N. Main St., I lamented the death of Sostanza. It is encouraging to see Anthony’s Main Street Grill poised to open any day now in the same spot.
Downtown’s struggle to reinvent itself and find a new identity is a battle that has gone on for a long, long time. Some former downtown business owners trace the area’s problems to the opening of Walmart, while others blame the day that somebody got the grand idea to beautify downtown by ripping out the angled on-street parking and put in trees, benches and grass.
When I moved here 15 years ago, I was interviewed by Stephen Speckman, a writer for the Transcript-Bulletin. The newspaper was doing a series of feature articles on new people in town.
Speckman asked what ideas I had on how to revitalize the downtown area. I told him about the small Main Street in Lynden, Wash., the town I had just come from with a current population of nearly 12,000.
The merchants, property owners and local government there collaborated together to capitalize on the town’s rich Dutch heritage. The storefronts on Main Street were remodeled to resemble a Dutch town with a windmill hotel, a small indoor mall sporting Dutch canal, a Dutch bakery, a Dutch restaurant, boutiques and antique shops. The town then spent money on marketing itself as “Little Holland,” and started pulling in tourists from all over. I once ran into a busload of tourists from Japan that made the 15-mile detour north of Interstate 5 to shop on Lynden’s Main Street.
Leavenworth, another town in Washington, took advantage of their location nestled in the Cascade Mountains. With a natural alpine-like setting, the entire town was converted into a Bavarian village. The place was devastated for years following the rerouting of the railway to bypass the town causing the local sawmill to shutdown. The town now boasts that it pulls in two million tourists a year.
These two successful revival stories have one thing in common: merchants, property owners and local government conspired together in an atmosphere of trust to invest in their downtown areas. So far, that kind of partnership has eluded Tooele. Several unilateral efforts have been launched with great hopes, but died right out of the starting blocks.
That brings me back to my arctic trek around downtown. Despite the new life that springs up occasionally, the place still languishes like an Alzheimer’s victim or a person suffering with Parkinson’s disease.
Sputtering along, the area has several bright spots that have endured time and have a loyal customer base. I just wonder how long they can hold on while the rest the area struggles like a rebellious teenager on a tumultuous journey of self-discovery.