Becky McCray, a Rural business consultant, sees a lot of promise in Woodland’s future. From seeing the trees and planter boxes downtown to hearing from locals who are looking for ways to make their city better, she spoke encouragingly of the potential the city has.
“It’s obvious that there are people in this town that care,” McCray said while standing among several Woodlanders at Luckman Coffee Company. The Oklahoman cattle rancher, former liquor store owner and current consultant for rural economic development has offered advice nationwide for cities like Woodland on how small businesses can help drive success.
McCray’s itinerary included a stroll through downtown Woodland, the conversation at Luckman as well as a stop by the weekly Woodland Chamber of Commerce meeting at the Oak Tree Restaurant. She was there as part of a larger tour across Cowlitz County’s cities put on by the Cowlitz Economic Development Council, culminating in her keynote address at the council’s annual gathering on Thursday.
Though looking at the future of a city can seem like a broad task to tackle, through her conversation McCray stressed “small steps” toward building a thriving economy. While those focused on economic development talk about the “business pipeline” and big projects that come through that metaphorical infrastructure, McCray instead stressed a focus on “the person on the card table” during a seasonal bazaar — the start of an entrepreneurial experiment.
McCray gave an example found in Washington, Iowa, a city with a comparable population to Woodland. A building there had been turned into “The Village” — a collection of boutique-sized shops in one space allowing for a smaller investment from the respective businesses while still having a spot downtown.
McCray didn’t like to suggest any particular kinds of business to the places she visits, explaining that locals would have to bring in what they themselves wanted. The model of starting small and frequent could also improve chances of success.
“If you have a dozen little experiments start then you are far more likely to find the one that works best than I will find by visiting for just the morning,” she said.
“Experimentation gives you a chance to explore who you are and who you are becoming without having to commit that that’s definitely who you are going to be,” McCray said, adding that sometimes the big-picture planning at the level of city government can get the message wrong.
Endeavors like The Village also worked to create community spaces, which McCray said could go beyond the businesses themselves to events like a kids activity day or a potluck at Horseshoe Lake Park. She was particularly drawn to how the park was “anchoring” the end of the downtown strip.
“The ultimate goal is to make the kind of place where people want to linger and be part of the community, because the community happens when people talk to each other and we’ve got to get them all in one place so they talk,” McCray said.
Revitalizing small-town downtown isn’t strictly about having more things to sell, as McCray touched on art projects. During her tour she saw plenty of areas where artwork and more “color” could go, explaining that works could be full-blown installations or more temporary, “ninja” projects put up more on a whim of local creative minds and as a (hopefully) pleasant surprise for residents.
Woodland Community Development Director Travis Goddard doesn’t want artwork in Woodland to be strictly put up under the cover of night. During McCray’s visit some of her ideas brought to his mind sections of city code that would need a change to help foster more art and gatherings — exemptions on permits for public art, or changing regulations on food carts to allow them to easily set up at community gatherings.
To help with the city getting up to speed on implementing some of McCray’s ideas, Goddard noted that the city council recently approved the creation of an associate planner position that will shift some of the permit processing he currently undertakes in order to have “some of those interesting discussions” about what the city could do.
The city’s job would be more getting out of the way of residents’ own ideas than implementing any new, grand plans, which is something the Community Development head can appreciate.
“Some of her ideas are a little radical, but she’s not asking the city to do them, she’s asking the citizens,” Goddard said.