Organizers hope a fall festival will draw tourists to Commerce Avenue and generate enough revenue to hire a permanent employee to continue drawing people downtown.
A longtime Longview nonprofit called Downtowners is hosting the Harvest Festival from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22 in downtown Longview with the goal of showing visitors why they should visit downtown more often.
The festival was inspired by an event of the same name on the mid-2000s TV show “Parks and Recreation,” said Downtowners President Lindsey Cope (whose name sounds a bit like the series’ protagonist Leslie Knope).
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The festival is slated to include events such as a free country music concert, a truck show, a pie-eating contest, a haunted house for children and a petting zoo with a pony named Li’l Sebastian, just like in the show.
The plan is not just to have fun, but to raise at least $20,000 through sponsorships to hire a full-time Downtowners employee to plan additional events to bring people to the downtown shops, restaurants and venues. The annual event will continue to fund the employee as well as possible grants, Cope said.
Cope said she has worked to help attract people and businesses downtown as an officer of the Cowlitz Economic Development Council, an independent 501(c)4. Each Washington county has a similar organization dedicated to local economic growth and is partially funded by the Washington State Department of Commerce.
For the past roughly four years, Cope has led the Downtowners board as an employee of the Cowlitz Economic Development Council, and the dedication of a paid staff member has paid off, said Realty ONE Pacific Group owner Brad Whittaker, whose business is on Commerce Avenue.
Whittaker said he’s seen downtown grow since he bought his nearly 100-year-old office building in 2018 and joined Downtowners’ new, top-tier membership at $2,500 a year, up from $50 previously.
“A vibrant downtown is so important,” he said.
Whittaker’s real estate company doesn’t necessarily benefit from festival foot traffic the way a store might, he added, but people drawn to the center may end up buying property nearby and turning to it. He contributes Downtowners to the “long game” and sees how other vibrant centers like Vancouver and Hood River “create an energy that makes people want to go,” he said.
Whittaker said a permanent, dedicated staff member should lead the charge for growth at the center, not a time-limited volunteer.
Over the past four years, Cope said she’s helped add regular events like Small Business Saturday to attract customers downtown. At least twice as many regular members now attend monthly Downtowners meetings.
The overall group, Cope said, has grown from eight paid members at $25 a year around 2018 to 50 at $75 a year. The newest membership levels range from $100 to $2,500 and offer benefits such as being added to the Downtowners website, featured in local radio commercials, and receiving a grand opening or re-opening event with advertising.
Cope said the mom-and-pop shops that mostly take place downtown are not only dedicated to their business, but also to the area, which helps create a sense of place that attracts additional businesses and residents.
“There’s something very charming about having such an active center,” he said.