EUGENE, Ore. (KMTR) –- Over the last few decades downtown Eugene has earned a negative stigma with a lack of business and numerous problems, however, a new group of business owners is now hoping to change that as a resurgence of activity has finally sprung back downtown with new buildings and businesses once again filling the core.
Over the next year, more than a dozen new businesses will open their doors downtown. The giant pits that seemingly used to define downtown have now been filled and at a growing rate, vacant retail spaces are welcoming new tenants.
The new businesses include everything from restaurants to coffee shops, bars, theaters, classrooms and companies.
“We've released the log jam,” says Denny Braud, Senior Development Analyst for the city of Eugene's Planning and Development Department. “There's a lot of construction going on, there's lots of pink permit signs in the windows.”
Denny Braud has been one of the primary city developers behind downtown's redevelopment over the last ten years. The project has been a long haul, according to Braud.
“I think the biggest challenge really is just the economics,” says Braud.
But over the last few years things have started moving partially because of the city's Urban Renewal Agency. One of the tactics they've used has come in the form of small construction loans and investments in small business development.
" . . . something in the neighborhood of probably about $20 million that we've invested over the last couple years,” says Braud.
So far, one of the biggest investments from the city has gone to Lane Community College's (LCC) new downtown campus and student housing complex, Titan Court. 86 people now live in Titan Court, which has room for more than 200 residents. The college believes more students will move in to the complex when classes begin next door in January.
On Willamette Street near the intersection of East Broadway Avenue is another filled pit, the Woolworth Building. The building is owned by Bennett Management Company. City offices now occupy part of the building and there's interest but no tenant yet for a ground floor retailer.
"I think this is going to be a great active vibrant building,” says Braud.
Next door to the Woolworth Building on the corner of East Broadway and Willamette Street is downtown Eugene's centerpiece, the Broadway Commerce Center (BCC). The city's Urban Renewal Agency loaned Beam Development about $10 million to remodel it.
“I think it's worth it because of the momentum it's now created,” says Braud.
One year after its opening, tenants are moving in to both the office space and ground floor retail space in the building. The first ground floor retailer that will open in the BCC is "The Barn Light."
"We're standing in the Barn Light . . . full service coffee, full bar, open early, staying open late, small bites,” says Thomas Pettus-Czar, a co-owner of the business.
Pettus-Czar and co-owner Dustin Kinsey are starting the coffee shop and bar business from scratch. The business partners took the concept from a bar they used to work at in Laurence, Kansas, called the Bourgeois Pig. This will be the first business the duo has opened in Eugene.
“Coffee, beer and the bar atmospheres are terribly popular here,” says Pettus-Czar.
When looking for space in for the business, Kinsey says the two didn't really even look to downtown Eugene until things just “came together.”
“The timing just felt right,” says Kinsey.
"We started to see the other businesses that were coming down here,” says Pettus-Czar, "Belly moved in, also Voodoo Doughnut."
“That was kind of the upswing,” says Kinsey. "We and the other business owners setting up shop down here hope to help to change the culture not only downtown but bring a centrality back to the city."
The Barn Light is hoping to open its doors in late November.
Right next door more change is coming soon. The Portland-based pizza company Sizzle Pie has also leased ground floor retail space at the BCC.
"We have a nod of our head to the traditions of east coast style pizza, but very much tied to northwest . . . our music background really just kind of contributes as well,” says Mikey McKennedy, co-founder of Sizzle Pie.
The heavy metal-influenced pizza shop chose downtown because of the buzz.
“You can feel the groundswell, the change and the activity and it just jumped out at us,” says Matt Jacobson, co-founder of Sizzle Pie.
Serving up slices and open late, Sizzle Pie hopes to open in the first two months of 2013.
Soon enough, they'll have another neighbor as well. The former Rabbit Bistro & Bar that used to be in south Eugene is also planning to move into the BCC under the name "Soubise."
The Broadway Commerce Center is also filling up with businesses renting office space, including "bell+funk Research," a design and marketing firm. "Pivot Architecture" is also occupying the building. Finally, Eugene's "Palo Alto Software" will also move its offices into the Broadway Commerce Center around the end of the year.
Down the street on Willamette, another Eugene business, "Off the Waffle" is also planning on opening in November. The shop serves up authentic Belgian Liege style waffles. The eatery will open its second location in a vacant space in the U.S. Bank building next to the Bagel Sphere. They hope to open by the end of the year.
"It just seemed like the right thing,” says Omer Orian, co-owner of Off the Waffle.
The new space will double the size of their south Eugene shop and Omer hopes it adds new flavor downtown.
“There's been a shortage of variety . . . I hope that more food business show up honestly,” says Omer.
Some food business is already booming, including the "Noisette Pastry Kitchen." The shop opened in October, in the former "Broadway Market" retail space on the corner of West Broadway and Charnelton Street.
"People [who] live in this area, a lot of people that work downtown have all been coming and its been fabulous,” says Tobi Sovak, owner of Noisette.
Across the street from "Noisette," a Japanese restaurant is slated to open in the next year. Half a block down on West Broadway the new Lord Leebrick Theatre will open up in January 2013.
While a positive vibe is in the air downtown, Braud says there's still work to do, including getting more people downtown. Planners would like to see a 24-hour presence of people living and working downtown. They hope to do that through housing.
The Capstone student housing project will add 230 apartments near 13th and Olive and 12th and Willamette Streets. Master Development also has sixteen apartments at the corner of East Broadway and Willamette Street as part of the First on Broadway development.
Below the apartments, owners of the Bijou Theatre will open the "Bijou Metro" theatre. The "First National Tap House" bar will open in another retail space in the same building.
The city also wants to see more shops downtown, like clothing stores and boutiques.
"Small specialty retail that really focuses on serving the local market,” says Braud.
Downtown Eugene may still be a work in progress, but planners and business owners agree, the progress is finally starting to show itself.
"Historically people have tended to focus on a lot of the problems that we experience downtown but I think it's shifted and people are definitely talking about the buzz,” says Braud.
“I think we're helping to pioneer this thing,” says Omer Orian, co-owner of Off the Waffle.
"There's a lot of opportunity for all of us,” says Tobi Sovak, owner of Noisette.
"Each individual and the community as a whole can help change and determine the fate of downtown. At this point, [we're at a] crucial juncture,” says Dustin Kinsey, co-owner of The Barn Light.
The Barn Light, Noisette, Sizzle Pie and Off the Waffle all say the only reason they were able to open up in downtown Eugene is thanks to the Urban Renewal Agency's small business loan program. The program loans between $25,000 and $100,000 to qualifying businesses. All of that money will eventually be repaid to the city.