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Viking Avenue will revive tree-lighting ceremony; businesses studying ways to spur economy

POULSBO — Viking Avenue businesses are reviving the thoroughfare’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony this year in an endeavor to bring consumers and residents back to the once-busy district.

The event, tentatively scheduled for Nov. 25, 6:30 p.m., at a site to be determined, will include food vendors and entertainment.

It’s been 20 years since the last ceremony was held, said Elda Armstrong, office manager at ADA Engineering on Viking. She also owns St. Mick’s Tree Farm and will donate the tree.

“We want to let people know businesses [on Viking] are still in business,” Armstrong said. “We need to pull together in this economy and buy local.”  The “we” Armstrong is referring to is a group of property and business owners on Viking, concerned residents and the city pulling  together  to  bring  customers and vitality back to the struggling business district. Asking what city government can do to help, the mayor and City Council hosted a meeting Oct. 17 in City Hall to brainstorm ideas.

“We’re real good at telling, but not really good at listening,” Mayor Becky Erickson said of local government. “Today is about listening.”

After the departure of heavyweight businesses such as Poulsbo RV and Courtesy Ford, Viking Avenue has struggled to attract customers and remain a viable area for future businesses. Both companies cited the economic downturn for their withdrawal, the same reason new businesses are not filling the spots.

Councilman Ed Stern said the vacant lots give the appearance that Viking Avenue is a failing district.

“Perception can create realities,” he said to two dozen or so business and property owners, as well as concerned residents.

Erickson encouraged an informal sharing session, where more ideas than concerns were shared. Short-term ideas, such as the Christmas tree and a car show next summer, were discussed, but many were stumped about long-term solutions.

Mike Musick, who owns property on Viking Avenue, said the group should ask a “grander question”: whether a public-private sector partnership should seek larger businesses to fill the vacancies, or break up the large parcels and recruit smaller “hodgepodge”-type retail businesses.

Property developers already looked into a master plan for Viking Way, utilizing Olympic Property Group president Jon Rose  “pro-bono” to look into a concept plan. Rose said a concept plan could run up to $100,000, and for the time being, developers could simply agree to stick to the current 1950s-architectural “theme.”

Craig Steinlicht, a real estate agent for Remax, said he has been actively seeking auto dealerships and big box stores to fill the vacancies for a few years, with no luck. Steinlicht was recently successful in bringing Washington Tractor, a John Deere dealership, to Viking Avenue, but said it was a struggle to persuade the owners to choose Poulsbo over Bremerton.

“No one is willing to spend the big dollars to renovate,” he said. “There’s a lot of people ready to do stuff,” such as start up small businesses. But, “The competition for funds out there is so fierce we’re not even on the map.”

Some small businesses have already made Viking Avenue their home. Thormod Skaid of Iceland visited Poulsbo during Viking Fest last year and decided to make Poulsbo home. He and his wife Asta Gunnlaugstdottir began selling Viking Feast Ice Cream at the farmers market and recently opened a store on Viking. They would like to see more small businesses open in the vacant lots, and possibly some residential space as well.

Steinlicht had some ideas on how the city could help make Viking Avenue more attractive — reducing the cost of businesses to locate to Poulsbo, and putting powerlines underground — but that would cost the city money it is struggling to budget.

Andrzej Kasiniak, city engineer, said the city spent about $10 million over the last 10 years in infrastructure on Viking Way — sewer and water hookups are ready for businesses, and frontage improvements have been made. The city is also currently working on a $2 million waterfront trail project, which will connect downtown Poulsbo to Viking Way through Fish Park.

Others suggested finding a permanent place for the Poulsbo Farmers Market.

“We’re drawing in business, not taking business away,” Farmers Market President Paula Strid said.

Erickson agreed.

“Businesses that cluster together are more successful,” she said. She pushed for a joint marketing plan and joint advertising, and offered an off-freeway sign to attract more business.

Other ideas: a hotel, restaurants where patrons could enjoy the view of Liberty Bay, lunch carts, and a car show in the summer.

In its heyday as Auto Row, the city received $633,091 as its share of sales tax revenue generated on Viking, and an average of 22,000 vehicles per day traveled on the thoroughfare, according to past Herald reports. That number has dwindled 15,500 on Viking Avenue at Lindvig/Finn Hill, according to Kasiniak.

Participants were invited to the council’s next Economic Development Committee meeting, Oct. 26, to continue discussions.

 

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