Downtown Washougal ‘moving in the right direction’

Several new businesses move into area hit hard by COVID-19 pandemic

Earlier this year, representatives from dataPARC, a Vancouver-based technology company, reached out to Ed Fischer and asked him to help them find a new home for their growing business. They told Fischer, a commercial real estate agent and the former owner of Camas Bike and Sport, that they preferred to land in Camas or east Vancouver if possible.

They were a bit skeptical when Fischer suggested they consider downtown Washougal.

“They were like, ‘You’re kind of steering us a little off path here,'” Fischer said. “I’m like, ‘Hey, you just need to take a look.’ (They liked that the Washougal Town Square) has easy access off the freeway and covered parking. There were other things that were truly appealing to them, like taking a walk on the river trail or going for a bike ride on their lunch break.

“(In the end), they said, ‘It’s going to be a little bit of a longer drive for a few of our people. But the uniqueness of it, the character of it, we just kind of like it.'”

dataPARC signed a lease for 10,000 square feet of office space in the Washougal Town Square in June and is now in the process of constructing its new digs, which should be completed and ready for move-in by October, according to Jason Myers, the company’s business manager.

But dataPARC isn’t the only company that’s taking advantage of opportunities in downtown Washougal. The area, hit hard by the financial fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, is starting to show signs of life once again.

“It’s just been really slow, but there’s good things happening,” said David Stuebe, a Washougal city councilman and Washougal Business Association board member. “It’s growing. We’re building momentum and moving forward. The opportunities are there — people just have to recognize them and start moving in. They’re starting to see that it’s too expensive (in other places) and maybe there is an opportunity to come this way.”

The Luke Palan Tattoo studio opened for business in the Washougal Town Square earlier this year. J Teriyaki, a teriyaki restaurant, opened at 1887 Main Street (the former home of OurBar) on Monday, Aug. 8. Right across the road at 1834 Main Street (the former home of Amnesia Brewing, Alex’s Smokehouse and Logsdon’s Farmhouse Ales), Trap Door Brewing opened on Tuesday, Aug. 30, bringing its award-winning beers and a pizza kitchen to east Clark County.

“We enjoy being a part of the revival of uptown village in Vancouver, and we want to create that same experience on Main Street in Washougal,” Trap Door Brewing co-owner Bryan Shull said. “We will be engaged in the communities we serve. We are committed to taking care of the people who take care of us.”

And at 1535 “E” St., within walking distance of the downtown core, Ashwood Taps and Trucks, a taproom/food-truck pod, opened to the public on Wednesday, Aug. 17.

“I do think we are moving in the right direction, getting new life into the buildings,” said Pam Rollins, the owner of Forest Moon Yoga, which opened at 1830 Main Street in 2021. “When I opened last summer, several businesses were still open on Main Street, but as the year went on they started closing or moving to new locations. It got awfully quiet downtown because you lose that foot traffic when doors close. It’s been very exciting for me to witness the new business owners, or in the case of Trap Door, a second location, move into downtown.”

Washougal city council member Ernie Suggs said that business is picking up in Washougal because the COVID-19 pandemic is “slowing down.”

“Even though they say (COVID-19 rates are) coming back up, people seem to be getting out more, and there’s more people looking for things to do,” he said. “And there are some people who are just waiting and (asking), ‘What can I do? What can I open? What can I bring into the city in regards to business?’ There are some things that are coming in, and they’re going to feed all the way down the chain.”

Fischer believes that the “feeding” process will happen after dataPARC relocates to the Washougal Town Center.

“They’re going to be kind of a little mini-stimulus down there,” he said. “I think (Washougal Coffee Company) is going to thrive off of those guys being in there. The coffee shops and the restaurants will benefit the most. I think (dataPARC is) almost kind of like an anchor tenant as far as the amount of money coming into the area there.”

The technology company will bring about 40 new jobs to Washougal, according to Fischer.

“I feel like we’re getting there fairly early,” Myers said. “There’s a lot of potential within Washougal. COVID probably knocked it back a notch — a lot of the restaurants and (other businesses) shut down. But it sounds like the city is looking to really build out that town square area and invest in it and invest in the waterfront, so we just felt like it’s a prime location for the future.”

dataPARC was previously known as Capstone Technology, which was founded by a small group of James River Corporation chemical engineers in the late 1990s and located above Lutz Hardware in downtown Camas. The Washougal Town Square allows dataPARC to “return to its roots,” according to Myers.

“We wanted to get out of having to drive everywhere,” he said. “At our (Vancouver) location, if you wanted to go grab a bite to eat or go get a coffee, you had to get in your car. And everywhere else we looked that was within our budget, (we saw) the same challenge. We wanted something that facilitated that kind of off-the-cuff, ad hoc, ‘Hey, I’m running down to the coffee shop, anybody want to go grab a coffee?’ (situation). It allows you to get to know your fellow employees more and spend more time with them, not in a structured sense, but in a more casual environment.

“We like the building and the space, but what we really liked was that it has a similar vibe to Camas, where you can walk places and have the river right there. The draw was the walkability and the building itself.”

The Washougal Town Square is “a perfect fit” for dataPARC, Myers added.

“With COVID and everyone being isolated for so long, we really wanted to change our culture. We’re going to have more of a hybrid approach, but we had to have a place where people wanted to come to work,” he said. “To me, (the Washougal Town Square) was a no-brainer. The space is just beautiful. It’s got lots of a lot of natural light, and we can build it out to (to add) a more of a modern tech feel to it. It had the amenities that we were looking for. It just seems like the options are endless, and it’s going to bring a new energy to us.”

Community leaders ‘building opportunities for Washougal’

Suggs said that further development will take “a group of people who are willing to take a chance or see the vision of what can be done and what the benefits would be.”

“It’s a slow process,” he said. “We don’t have the money Camas has, so we have to develop within ourselves to benefit the community.”

The downtown core will be further transformed in the next several years with the additions of a new library and a civic recreation complex that will include an outdoor seating area, an off-leash dog park, a splash pad and a pocket park. Fort Vancouver Regional Library and the city, respectively, are currently raising funds for both projects.

Additionally, Edlen & Company, a Portland-based real estate investment, development and asset management firm, is planning to construct a 46,000-square-foot, six-story mixed use building at the corner of Main Street and Pendleton Way (next to the new library) in 2023 that will include space for retail businesses in addition to 46 apartment units.

“We’re building opportunities for Washougal,” Stuebe said. “By collaborating with the Port of Camas-Washougal and joining the (waterfront) trail and having that (American Empress) cruise line come in, there’s more opportunity for people to be successful. We’re trying to do it with activities like the movie night (events). By having more community action plans or community events, people are going to start going, ‘Oh, yeah, we have a downtown.'”

Downtown Washougal began to thrive pre-pandemic thanks to an influx of small businesses, many led by younger, new-to-the-area owners who brought fresh ideas and a sense of vibrancy to Main Street.

But that momentum disappeared after the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses across Washington state to implement a series of costly safety restrictions. Many Main Street staples, such as OurBar, Alex’s Smokehouse, and Chameleon Vintage and Vinyl, permanently closed. Others, such as Logsdon’s Farmhouse Ale and 3rd Heart Tattoo, moved to other cities. Kilted Spirits Irish Pub has been closed since 2021 and is currently available for rent. And others, such as Taberna NW, closed, opened back up, then closed again.

The result? Too many empty storefronts, too many for-rent or for-sale signs, and not enough activity.

“It did stall,” Stuebe said. “When I first got on (to the council), I asked (former councilwoman and OurBar owner Alex Yost), ‘So what’s up with our downtown?’ She said, ‘Well, they need a timeout.’ I’m like, ‘They don’t need a timeout. They need to be jump-started. They need a kick.’ But maybe they didn’t have that direction. Maybe there were too many different ways they were trying to go with that (momentum). … Things had to be energized.”

That’s where Stuebe hopes the Washougal Business Association (WBA) can play a role. Earlier this year, a new group of leaders, including former Washougal city council member Paul Greenlee, 54-40 Brewing owner Bolt Minister and Stuebe, took charge of the WBA and committed to “revisioning” the reason for its existence.

The organization “needed a new direction” but now “has a lot of positive energy,” according to Stuebe.

“We don’t want to be a chamber (of commerce). We don’t want to be a downtown association,” he said. “We’re still kind of finalizing the mission statement, but our goal should be taking care of businesses. Our mission should be attracting businesses, helping them be successful, keeping them in business and being more of an asset for them to come in and be successful. We believe in the collaboration, having them ask, ‘As a new business owner, who can I talk to about this issue?'”

Suggs said that downtown would be improved with the addition of better lighting, more places to “sit and hang out,” a bakery, youth-oriented companies such as ice-cream shops or game rooms, and “unique” businesses that tap into the things that make Washougal different from other towns.

Fischer believes that better promotion of the Washougal Town Square, which he estimated is about “80 to 90 percent full” and is, in his opinion “the nicest facility in east Clark County,” will help tremendously.

And Rollins thinks that collaboration is the key.

“We could make downtown more appealing to small business owners by lowering leasing rates, hosting more local events like farmer’s markets or festivals, (or) having businesses, the city, and the community partner on events,” Rollins said.

“Right now it feels like everyone visits Camas to meet their needs, and I would like to see that change. I personally would love to see a breakfast spot open up again. I’m so happy to see two new restaurants opening up this summer — yoga is a niche audience, but everyone has to eat. Small businesses support other small businesses by foot traffic alone, so I hope that greatly improves the visibility for all of the businesses downtown.”