ELLENSBURG - There are those who contend a major, future strength for downtown Ellensburg will come from looking up, up to many of its unused second stories.
Business woman and former councilwoman-mayor Mollie Edson believes restoration of Ellensburg's historic second stories must occur to keep life flowing in downtown.
"It's just got to happen," she said last week.
Her belief in the potential for restoring and reusing old, downtown buildings led her to buy the 1930 three-story building at Fifth Avenue and Pearl Street in March. She plans to revive the old bank and city hall to its former art-deco glory while using it for rented business space.
Timothy Bishop, executive director of the Ellensburg Downtown Association, said a crucial component to revitalizing the city's downtown core will be to redevelop the vacant upper floors of buildings for primarily apartments and residences.
"It makes economic sense for owners to use their entire building, to get a good economic return on it," Bishop said. "Maintaining business in downtown also means having people living downtown and retaining its functionality as a neighborhood."
John and Kristine Holcombe in June purchased the Wilson Building, built in 1889 in the middle of Pearl Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues. The Ellensburg Pet Center leases the first-floor store front and there are three apartments upstairs. The couple lives in one of them.
"We saw the pluses in living and owning property downtown, and we had the revenue to make it work," John said. "I'd like to think there is real potential for more people living here in downtown. Downtown businesses can feed off those people. Each one helps the other."
David Wheeler for 30 years has been a downtown building historian and consultant for the preservation and reuse of historic structures. He likes to encourage Ellensburg building owners with ideas on how to keep a building's unique, historic flavor, yet retain its use for contemporary services.
"Restoration for use now means a much more intense project for building owners than building something new," Wheeler said. "An owner needs a commitment and a strong vision for the future and good resources to keep going. There needs to be an excitement that stays with them in the project."
Ellensburg Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ron Cridlebaugh said a major hurdle for restoration and reuse is financing.
"Our biggest challenge, I feel right now, is cost," Cridlebaugh said. "It just costs so much more to bring an old building up to codes than to build new. Money is a big issue."
Edson moved her Warm and Cozy Co. into the first floor of the old city hall building - originally the National Bank of Ellensburg Building - after her purchase and, eventually, wants to restore the second floor mezzanine and other areas of the building that features mahogany molding and cornices and other unique woodwork. She presently has businesses renting two offices out of six on the refurbished third floor.
"I really think it's going to be a gem," she said about the completed restoration project.
The goal is for her business to move out and make the first floor available for a variety of businesses. Her experience on the City Council tells her a major, successful and well-funded restoration project in downtown could be the catalyst for many more similar projects.
She also would like to see Central Washington University and its adult or married students involved in more second-floor housing in downtown
"It will take one, really good redevelopment to be completed to help people see what can be done; we need it to happen," Edson said. "It will give everyone an education, including the city staff. It will tip the scale to encourage others."
She said the real challenge for redevelopment and remodeling of older buildings is not knowing exactly what will be found when a wall is opened up or flooring taken off.
"Just like in any remodeling project, you don't know exactly what your coming up against until you start doing the work," Edson said.
Bishop, heading Ellensburg's downtown revitalization effort through the Downtown Association, said the city's opening of the freeway interchange for large, commercial business expansion space means there will be a surplus commercial space available.
The downtown's unused second stories, for now, would be better utilized for more apartment dwellers.
"A mixed use of commercial and residential in downtown is a very important to the life of downtown," Bishop said. "The more residents in downtown, the more traffic to and from businesses seven days a week, 24 hours a day."
He said living downtown or close to downtown attracts a person with a somewhat different lifestyle who likes the close availability of restaurants and entertainment. Yet, he said the challenge is to balance the "sometimes boisterous and sometimes loud" entertainment aspect of downtown with maintaining its capacity for residential use.
Bishop said many cities, large and small, across the state have or are encouraging rehabilitation of old structures for residential use. This includes Walla Walla, Moses Lake, Spokane, Vancouver and Wenatchee.
The Holcombes used to live 12 miles outside Ellensburg but are now smack dab in the middle of downtown after their June purchase of the Wilson Building on North Pearl Street. They live upstairs in one of three apartments. The Ellensburg Pet Center is on the ground floor.
John said he and his wife, Kristine, got rid of one of their two cars after they moved downtown because they didn't need it. They found themselves able to walk to their bank, and many of their other frequently-used businesses and restaurants and to many downtown events, including the farmers market.
"If you love downtown and all that it can offer, it's a great place to live," said John who works at Wilbur-Ellis, the former Western Feed. "We're close to just about everything we need. And our footprint on the environment is less."
John said Ellensburg "may be slow in catching on" to the value of second-floor redevelopment, but he's seen some projects move forward.
"It takes a lot of gumption on the part of a building owner and real good capital to do it right," John said.
Wheeler, who now works for ESM Civil Engineering, said he's seen the excitement of historic building restoration in the lives of several building owners through the years.
He said he's seen it in Tim and Lilly Kay, who own the old New York Cafe building that houses the China Inn on the first floor at Third Avenue and Main Street. He said they are planning to remodel and restore the building, including changing its second floor into a mix of business and residential spaces.
The building was completed in 1910-11 era. The Kays came to Wheeler for advice.
"They are looking at the work in the long term; they have an excitement about having a vision about what their building can look like," Wheeler said.
He estimates there are 12 buildings in the downtown historic district that have under-utilized space, many having been former hotels. Some building owners, such as the Clymer Museum of Art, have future plans for such development, others have already done it, like the Gallery 1 Visual Arts Center.
Wheeler said restoration and remodeling projects have the challenge of meeting several building and safety codes that didn't exist when the buildings were first built. That creates a need for ample financial resources, he said.
Wheeler said a higher level of cooperation between all parties - public and private - is needed "to make things happen in downtown," including restoration and reuse.
"There needs to be a certain level of community confidence," he said. "There needs to be much more organization in a project upfront."
Not all second stories will play well for apartments, he said, and these should be seen as future public spaces for meetings, conventions, conferences and special events.
Wheeler said the strength of downtown and its historic structures can be found in their uniqueness which is highly attractive to long-term business and residential development.
During a recent tour of two, old second stories in downtown that Wheeler guided, he told local residents that if they look carefully at the old, fading interiors, they can visualize Ellensburg's past.
"And if you look a little harder, and squint a little more, you can see Ellensburg's future," he said.