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Business expert talks downtown strategy

By ALLISON MILES
March 27, 2013 at 10:05 p.m.
Updated March 26, 2013 at 10:27 p.m.

Jon Schallert discusses downtown revitalization Wednesday night inside the University of Houston-Victoria Multi-Purpose Room. Schallert, a destination business expert, served as keynote speaker at the Victoria Main Street Program's annual dinner.

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To learn more about the Victoria Main Street Program, call 361-578-0060 or click here.

For a community to move forward, it helps to embrace the past. That was one business professional's message.

"Downtowns these days in North America are kind of like the incubators of business success," said Jon Schallert, a destination business expert. "Businesses that have a chance to start, that have a chance to have this historic emotional connection, have a great chance to really make it in the United States these days."

Schallert spoke Wednesday at the Victoria Main Street Program's annual dinner about what it takes to create destination spots, and the benefits that come from a thriving downtown.

Big change comes little by little, he said, and usually with one business at a time.

Schallert encouraged communities to take a closer look at what they have to offer. Oftentimes, he said, a city doesn't realize the interesting things it has right under its nose.

He noted Pat Slusher's Coin Shop in Centralia, Wash., which not only sold coins but also variety of vintage Hawaiian shirts, actually made in Hawaii. Another Centralia business, Ayala Brothers Furniture Co., boasted a desk from the captain's quarters of the USS Jamestown clipper ship.

The desk, originally on sale for $1,500, was where the document was signed that turned Alaska over from Russian ownership to the United States.

Although the Smithsonian Institute offered the company $250,000 for the haul, the company kept it. Today, he said, people travel hundreds of miles for a look.

Schallert also encouraged communities to think outside the box.

In Twin Falls, Idaho, for instance, the city removes its parking meters between Thanksgiving and the new year to offer free parking. When one business owner suggested installing gumball machines on the seasonally empty posts, the idea took off.

Business owners became responsible for the machines, he said, and filled them with coupons for various discounts. It was a move that earned the city widespread recognition.

"Don't be afraid of some crazy idea that can change a community," he said. "This is really silly, but it got them the change."

Also during the event, Sara Rodriguez, executive director of Victoria's Main Street program, awarded Torin Bales the organization's first facade grant.

The $10,000 grant will go to help Bales restore a building at 212 S. Main St. to what it once looked like, said Larry Clark, the program's board chairman. Although Bales has no renderings to show the building's previous appearance, Clark said his plan is to blend it in with the existing facade.

Victoria's current movers and shakers aren't the first who had visions for what the city might become, said Robby Burdge, chairman of the Main Street program's advisory board. That forethought was present in the 1900s, when men and women proposed the Intracoastal Waterway.

Essentially, he said, they were pitching the idea of a 25-mile ditch to fill with water and later introduce barges. But the idea stuck.

"Many of you, for many years, have been pushing for the Main Street program," he said. "And recently, because of those final pushes, the Main Street Program is in place. It is only successful because the vision and the ability to be able to dream."

Milton Chapman, board chairman with the Victoria Chamber of Commerce, attended Wednesday's event and said it encouraged him that Victoria is on the right track. Other communities Schallert discussed improved little by little, he said, and there's no reason Victoria couldn't see similar results.

"We can do it here," he said. "If we're proactive, and if we plan, we can do it."

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