If there's one thing Astoria has plenty of, it's historic buildings. Now there's a plan afoot to turn that valuable resource into a money-maker for the region by organizing a Historic Preservation Economic Cluster.
A historic preservation cluster would provide a framework for an interdependent relationship among property-owners, developers, contractors, craftspeople, suppliers, merchants, educators, government agencies and tourism-related businesses throughout Clatsop County, said Rick Gardner, director of Clatsop Economic Development Resource (CEDR).
"If you say Napa Valley, people think wine," Gardner said. "We want Astoria to mean historic preservation."
The focus of a cluster is finding ways to create synergy among businesses and remove roadblocks, Gardner told two dozen stakeholders at a meeting Friday convened to discuss the concept. Clusters are "nurtured, not bred," he told the group, and they can be enhanced by public policy. He said economic clusters help existing businesses to work smarter, more efficiently and more effectively to create jobs and wealth for a region.
The county has a great stock of historic buildings, John Goodenberger, a local expert on historic buildings, told those attending. There are at least three 1860s-era farm houses between Astoria and Seaside and an 1850 farm house in Warrenton, he said, as well as cottages along the Prom in Seaside, the Gilbert block in downtown Seaside and the Gearhart beach houses. And there are historic commercial and government buildings, including those at Fort Stevens State Park in Warrenton.
"The whole idea is to make Clatsop County the 'go-to' place for historic preservation - products, services and education," Goodenberger said. "We have a great start. How do we strengthen it?"
He said it's important to educate the general public and service groups to realize that historic preservation is an important local endeavor. The county is already home to craftsmen, designers, merchants and manufacturers who serve the historic preservation market, he said. However, very few actually make products locally, he said, showing a list of businesses he compiled from looking in the phone book. Instead of importing products and selling them here, they could be encouraged to manufacture them here. For example, if a craftsman is making a door, instead of looking in a national magazine to find hardware for it, he should be able to find it locally.
"Rather than wait for some large industry to come and 'save' us, let's look to ourselves," Goodenberger said.
Goodenberger envisioned a scenario in which a tourist planning to renovate his historic Portland home would come to Astoria, stay at the renovated Commodore Hotel, eat at the historic Schooner Restaurant, purchase products, visit Ed Overbay's Houseworks millwork business in Warrenton, and then attend a class on historic preservation at Clatsop Community College. The tourist would realize doing the work himself is too complex and difficult and would decide to hire a contractor from Clatsop County instead.
Educating skilled workers is an important component of the cluster concept, and instructor Lucien Swerdloff said courses will be offered at the college starting in fall of this year. They will be set up to accommodate workers, and the college will use its own buildings for training. They could also work on old houses with low-income owners as a service to the community.
At the suggestion of Jay Raskin, a Cannon Beach architect, it was decided that reconstructing the missing portico on the college's Towler Hall would be the "emblem" of the construction worker education component. Towler is being updated as part of the college's campuswide renovation and construction project now underway, but there's no money in the college budget to recreate the missing portico.
Going forward with a historic preservation cluster has a lot of supporters, especially among developers, contractors and craftsmen.
"I think it could be a really good thing for Astoria," said Brian Faherty, a preservationist and a real estate developer who moved here a year and a half ago. Faherty also owns a business in Portland, Schoolhouse Electric, which manufactures period lighting products. He said a cluster could bring the importance of preservation to the surface, foster collaboration and help owners of historic property realize the value of their holdings.
Faherty and his business partner, Paul Caruana, have four projects on 14th Street in Astoria, including restoring two old hotels, the Commodore and the John Jacob Astor. "Our passion is to breathe new life into beautiful architecture and find new uses," Faherty said. "We're creating a hub. It's not just random. We have our own little Astoria Development Commission starting on 14th Street."
Faherty said people ask him why he doesn't move his lighting company to Astoria. That raises bigger questions, he said, such as how the city can attract business to Astoria and produce workers with a better work ethic. He said making those changes will take the cooperation of city government, state and federal grants and tax incentives.
It adds up
"The economics really do support historic preservation. It is cost effective. It creates value that only time can generate," said Ed Overbay, whose Overbay Houseworks in Warrenton has 14 employees. A self-taught craftsman in wood, Overbay does all the millwork for entire houses rather than specializing in cabinetry, entry doors or bookcases.
Overbay said renovation of the Hotel Elliott and Liberty Theater and other historic buildings created a "synergistic dynamic" that has attracted a lot of investment here and made Astoria the "cultural epicenter" of the North Coast. "There's something about a historic structure ... you can't just build from new and create that same level of ambiance," he said. And although he wants architecture to continue to evolve, Overbay said "our architectural heritage is something we absolutely must protect."
Jared Rickenbach said one of the things about the historic preservation cluster that he likes best is raising community awareness before historic details are lost forever. "It's hard to understand what was inside a house when there's nothing left," said Rickenbach. His family's business, Rickenbach Construction, has had a hand in preserving and renovating some of Astoria's most important buildings, including the Liberty Theater, the Banker's Suite, the post office and the building that houses Clatsop Community Action.
Inventory of services
Astoria Community Development Director Brett Estes said the cluster discussion is a good opportunity to look at what services could be provided to local residents, as well as the bigger picture. For example, he said, some products could be crafted here and marketed across the country. "It's an opportunity to look at the sort of business that may be able to locate in this area and provide additional jobs in the preservation field," Estes said, such as a certain kind of wood product that's not mass-produced, or furnishings, wood trim work and special tools to make them.
After a lengthy and spirited discussion among the stakeholders, Gardner posed the critical question: "We're here today to decide - should we move ahead?" Hearing an enthusiastic "yes," Gardner said CEDR would start building a plan of action and contacting those who said they would help.
A cluster will get craftsmen interested in coming here, said Skip Hauke, executive director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce.
"CEDR can help put it together, but we have to know this group is excited and wants to help," Hauke said. "We've got the biggest classroom on the West Coast. Our goal is to create jobs for the entire county."
Funding to get the historic preservation cluster going comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Northwest Area Commission on Transportation and Columbia-Pacific Economic Development District (Col-Pac). "It's an opportunity to bring together a lot of people and generate more business for all of us," said Mary McArthur, executive director of Col-Pac. "We're serious about making this work."