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Just Try to Stop This Downtown Train

November 7, 2006

“All of my dreams just fall like rain
All upon a downtown train”

Tom Waits

Jon Shallert called last week to tell me about the movement to save downtown Ellensburg, Washington. Like a lot of downtowns in rural America, its very existence is threatened by a host of economic factors. Ellensburg is about a two-hour drive from Seattle. That same day New York Senator Charles E. Schumer and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wrote a Wall Street Journal article about saving downtown New York. It’s somewhere out east. Which effort do you suppose will get more attention?

It seems that New York’s primacy in financial matters is being threatened by such upstarts as London and Hong Kong. So, what is New York going to do about the threat to their downtown? Well, as the article, entitled “To Save New York, Learn from London,” says, “That is why New York has hired a consulting firm, which will issue a report in November identifying the specific variables that are negatively impacting our financial-services industry and recommending an action plan to correct them.” Be still my heart.

What is Ellensburg going to do about the threat to their downtown? No consulting firms, no reports – they just dug right in. Last week, they launched a national online fundraising effort on their web site – www.ellensburgdowntown.org. But since they couldn’t get Chuck Schumer and Michael Bloomberg to help, they decided they’d have to make do with a donated web site and a volunteer college student (Kvalley Computers – www.kvalley.com/ – and Nicole Evans).

The fundraising effort went live November 1st and in a just a matter of days (and while New York waits for its report) Ellensburg has already received an outpouring of support and money from places as far away as Washington D.C. and Tupelo, Mississippi.

The entire effort has also already energized Ellensburg itself. The Executive Director of the Downtown Ellensburg Association, Timothy Bishop, told us, “Businesses that a month ago weren’t convinced we would be around a year from now, suddenly started getting excited about downtown’s future and calling to see how they could help.”

Local coffee shop D&M Coffee agreed to put Ellensburg website stickers on every coffee sold in each of their 5 locations. Central Washington University’s Alpha Kappa Psi (“The Professional Business Fraternity”) decided to make the movement their community service project. Bishop told us “you can almost feel the change in the air.”

What the heck is going on here? Perhaps Glenn Reynolds, the author of An Army of Davids, can shed some light on why the effort to save downtown Ellensburg, even against all odds, is likely to work. The Wall Street Journal summarized his book this way: “The balance of advantage — in nearly every aspect of society — is shifting from big organizations to small ones.” Or, to put it another way, look out, Walmart.

Small organizations are not only propelled by technology, but also by the people who are dreaming up new and better ways to use those technologies. It’s not the technology, stupid. It’s what people do with technology that counts.

In this case, it started with a few earnest volunteers and the instant reach and connection of the Internet. Then it quickly moved to partnerships with others who care about the issue of preserving our rural and small town heritage. Now it’s going to pick up more partnerships. If you’re reading this, you may even be one of those potential partners.

Stephen M. R. Covey has written about “The Speed of Trust.” Just think of the speed of trust when someone in Tupelo, Mississippi trusts someone in a faraway Washington town. It’s staggering, really. It’s the speed of national trust and preservation.

Mssrs. Schumer and Bloomberg closed their article about New York with this sentence (we’ve changed only a word or two):
Our abilities… will determine the future of Ellensburg — and, in many ways, the nation. If we do not rise to the challenge, the speculation that downtown Ellensburg is losing its pre-eminence in its own local marketplace will become more than just chatter.

Don’t let that happen – to Ellensburg or New York.

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8 comments

  1. I recently heard that Timothy Bishop had taken on the David/Goliath challenge of reinventing downtown Ellensburg with his usual budget – Mirrors ‘n Magic. Several years ago I met Bishop by not returning 5 of his calls. He wanted our downtown Boise restaurant concept to expand to Baker City, OR, population 81. Right. And I want to sail to the Cook Islands with an all girl crew, but it probably won’t happen. I responded to him with about 11 flavors of NO, and he kept coming back like I said yes. I stuck to NO, but not before he coerced me to visit Baker City and put in my 2 cents on creating a vibrant downtown. By the time I left I had a clear, full-color picture of Baker City’s 76 Trombone Marching Band led by Prof. Harold Hill (Bishop). This guy can out-hustle the Music Man. The hype and sizzle he created with local/regional/national news is remarkable for a town the size of Baker City.

    A few years later Bishop phones me once, and I return the call immediately. He wants one of our concepts in Walla Walla, WA. Luckily, I was committed to having fewer rather than more restaurants. I stuck to NO on the restaurant, but he succeeded in getting me to visit Walla Walla and provide input on their Downtown 20 yr. plan. He basically wanted me to consult while staying within his budget … free. However, I may have been overpaid. I learned so much from that visit. I felt surrounded with the creativity, vision and the infectious enthusiasm of Timothy and his downtown advocates. Others must have thought so, too. Walla Walla landed 17 pages in Sunset Magazine, stories in the Oregonian, WSJ, NY Times, Boston Globe, national recognition and much more. Timothy Bishop doesn’t go out and rebuild downtowns. He is an arson who lights fires in the hearts and minds of downtown citizens. They become personally involved in the excitement and rebirth of their city’s cultural and economic center.

    I want Bishop and his wand to come to Boise. I know people in other cities that want his talent. I read that he had pretty much achieved his goals in Walla Walla and was moving on – not to the big bucks of larger cities, but to the unique challenge that Ellensburg, WA faces today.

    I think I will go wait by the phone in case Timothy Bishop calls. Each time I have had an opportunity to “help” him, I return to Boise with far more enlightenment and ideas than I have provided. I continue to be intrigued by Bishop’s ability to blend the administrative and bureaucratic skills of a downtown business association director, with the entrepreneurial panache of a creative innovator. I can’t wait to see what the near future has in store for Ellensburg’s small and vulnerable downtown. Saving the downtown sounds like a defensive maneuver. But, sometimes the best defense is a strong offense. Goliath mega-stores can suck the life out of traditional downtowns. The mall-to-mall sprawl that accompanies these behemoth Big-Box retailers can take away far more than the independent shop owners. It can shoplift the very soul of a city’s center. But, despite the threatening storm clouds that accompany the Maul Malaise, my guess is that offensive coordinator Timothy Bishop and a revved up cadre of downtown activists will have an innovative strategic plan that aims high. The plan will no doubt include lofty, yet achievable goals that can race past basic downtown “survival” on their way to unprecedented success. This is a tough but doable challenge.

    On the economic chessboard of Ellensburg’s future, King Wal-mart, Queen K-mart, et al, position themselves to gobble up the small pawns of independent merchants; corral the knights and horses; and monopolize the formerly castle-controlled real estate. But for what it’s worth, my money’s on The Bishop.


  2. The website looks great. We are proud to be promoting this effort to save Downtown. Thanks for allowing us to be involved!


  3. I am a small merchant in Baker City, Oregon. Tim Bishop worked his magic here with our wonderful downtown. Downtown Baker City had declined in the late 70’s and needed help. Tim came along and revved up the community and the downtown leaders. Historic Downtown Baker City was created and the rest is history. We now have a very attractive downtown which draws people from all over and new shops and restaurants opening monthly. There are many activities during the month and year that attract people and draw the community together. We have many places that offer music at night and so forth. I am sure that Tim will be just as innovative in Ellensburg as he was here…


  4. I am the Executive Director for the Sumner Downtown Association. A small rural community of approx. 9,000 citizens, Sumner is about 45 minutes south of Seattle. I was hired in August of 2005 and am the first director and paid employee of our organization which was originally formed in 1992. I first met Timothy Bishop at a local Main Street conference as a speaker for one of the workshop sessions. His knowledge of the Main Street four prong approach is extensive and obvious to all, but it was his easy recitation of statistics and first hand success stories which convinced me he’d been there, done that, had the T-shirt and was someone I should get to know.

    My first priorities as Executive Director were to assist our current board of directors with becoming more knowledgeable about the Main Street program, a new name change, (if you’ve ever worked on a name change, you know it is not uncommon to take up drinking during the process) preparation of amendments to our corporate articles and by-laws and the creation of a mission statement and work plan. After contacting Washington’s Main Street Director in Olympia for suggestions and guidance for our organization, I contacted Timothy about being a facilitator for our 2006 Board Retreat. He was unavailable, so I rescheduled, called again, left messages, talked with him again at the Main Street conference, etc. I learned this summer that he would be leaving Walla Walla and accepting a new Executive Director’s position in Ellensburg. So I left him alone for a few months and called again with my request in October as we had a newly elected board. Finally, this month, he found one open weekend in February and agreed to facilitate our Board Retreat. I’m pretty sure he finally agreed so I’d quit calling him. I am confident that our Retreat will yield a successful and much needed mission statement and work plan for 2007 and further our goal to become a Main Street program.

    While I don’t mean to imply that Timothy flies around in blue spandex with a red cape revitalizing deserted downtowns across America (though I’d pay to see that if he did), his accomplishments reveal economic revitalization in the towns where he has worked and applied the Main Street approach, one successful step at a time. And more importantly, the changes implemented seem to be withstanding the test of time.

    When talking with Timothy, I always appreciate his focus on the Main Street approach and his application of that focus when sharing and questioning me about my own organization. He has that unique ability of posing questions which help you answer your own queries. In my first 28 year career as a paralegal, I learned that the most successful lawyers were those who could create a team vision in each case they handled. Timothy is tenacious, but pleasant, in bringing the conversation, questions and answers back to the Main Street focus time and again, which in turn, creates an unforgettable thought process and “vision” for those who are willing to learn from him and are truly vested in the economic restructuring strategies for their downtowns.

    I look forward to watching the results of Timothy’s work with downtown Ellensburg as our organization is also in its first year of the same process. However, I have learned from him that each downtown has its own unique history, flavor and goals and that means the true application of the Main Street approach results in different processes in each downtown. I am optimistic 2007 will be a foundational year for our organization and a stepping stone in our future revitalization success.

    Thank you for the focus, Timothy, and we’ll see you in February.

    Shelly Schlumpf, Executive Director, Sumner Downtown Assoc.


  5. I would like to pop in here for a quick minute and express the recognized “New Energy” in the community as Ellensburg prepares to take an ACTIVE role in the 21st Century.

    This “New Energy” that I’ve personnaly noticed at the local level is already making a difference and I would also like to express how important the grass roots efforts like those of the EDA can be in helping to revitalize a downtown or community.

    Timothy has already established himself as the man about town and is recognized by everybody for all of the walking around from business to business rallying the troops. Having spoken to several of the business leaders in the community myself, the majority seem hopefull and optimistic about Ellensburg’s future.


  6. As a Small Ellensburg business owner with big aspirations for our bursines in the historic downtown, I was somewhat downhearted when the reality of regional retail played out in our Ellensburg Comp. Plan. Creating two areas for retail growth outside of the downtown could spell doom for us. Two days ago I attended a meeting with Timothy Bishop and our City Manager, Ted Barkley. Both of these men have a clear idea of the challenges that face our downtown and several ideas to help us remain vibrant. A major part of this is the grass roots effort being undertaking by our Downtown Association. Using the Main Street four point plan of revitalization, many business owners and community members are sharing their time and energy to insure the comtinued success of our downtown. I’m comfident our historic downtown will weather this storm and Ellensburg, as a community, will continue to prosper.


  7. I was aware of this campaing previous to its launch and at the time thought it was an interesting idea and certainly an innovative approach to finding funds for downtown revitalization. I was Board Chair of the Albany, (oregon)Downtown Association when Tim started in this arena. He has taken a small idea and turned it into an impressive website, campaign and program for Ellensburg! I am impressed and expect Assocations all over the country will be stealing the idea, and they should!


  8. […] Timothy Bishop and a lot of other people are in the process of saving downtown Ellensburg. (See Just Try to Stop This Downtown Train). Their association has started a book club specifically for the downtown merchants – to read and […]



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