When the Center and Corridors Comprehensive Plan was adopted, the area around South Perry and Ninth Avenue was picked to be a pilot project for development according to the city's new plan. And things got off to a great start; by the middle of January 2001, the neighborhood received nearly $250,000 in federal money to improve the street, plant trees, put up old-fashioned street lights and planters as well as new sidewalks with decorative strips. Perry was on its way up. Soon the area would be a stellar example of mixed-use and economic development.
But soon it seemed like every change in the neighborhood was going in the wrong direction. The Excell grocery store closed. The Black Forest Deli, a neighborhood focal point for years, closed, too. Just within this last year, the gift shop located in the little windmill building has closed, and it's uncertain if the smoke shop will stay open. The antique store went from antiques to a banquet facility. The martial arts center closed. The Yellow Cow restaurant opened, but closed again after a short time.
What was left was a coffee shop, a dog grooming place, a tanning and nail salon, and a whole neighborhood asking, "What happened?"
Well, don't be fooled -- things did happen, they just weren't always apparent.
On Monday, the city council finally approved a contract with the Eller Corporation. Construction on the new street landscape is expected to begin by July 8.
"We want to hit the time around the street fair, which is on July 19, so people can see that there's finally some progress," says Tom Reese, the city's economic development advisor.
During his time in the planning department, Reese was the one who helped the neighborhood come up with the design plan that ultimately landed the federal grant, and he's been pushing for things to happen ever since.
"People get excited for the potential of their neighborhood when they see the vision take form," says Reese. "But that's a double-edged sword. Sometimes we can't pull the trigger and deliver as fast as we'd like."
And frustration with the city, the bid process and the waiting was running rampant, especially when the businesses started to close.
"Sure, we were getting very frustrated," says Jerry Numbers, chair of the East Central Neighborhood Council. "When the grocery store closed, that was really detrimental. That just sent everyone else into a tailspin."
The neighborhood's future seemed to be riding on the street landscaping project. Yet even though the grant money was in place, two years later not a single bench had gone up.
Jason Williams, who owns the Shop together with Mark Camp and Bob Hartwig, shares his neighbors' frustration but also feels some newfound hope.
"It's been a long time to wait, as far as the street renovation goes," he says. "It's been frustrating, but we just had to deal with the process and the time it took to get it through. We still have great faith in the neighborhood -- if we didn't, we wouldn't be opening another business here."
New Business -- Yes, that's right, the Shop is expanding. Just down the street from its existing location, the coffee entrepreneurs will be opening an ice cream shop, probably around the middle of July.
"We are working together with Blue Pillar Creamery -- they are out of Liberty Lake, locally owned and independent," says Williams. "That will definitely add something to the neighborhood."
And this is not the only new business with a South Perry address. On the corner where he Yellow Cow was located for a short while, Steve Ryen and his wife Michelle have opened the Perry Street Soup Pot.
"Yeah, I know we had the 'coming soon' signs in the window for a long time, but we're open now," says Ryen, who's been a chef for 21 years working at, among other places, Milford's and Shenanigan's.
Ryen is a longtime neighborhood resident but says he's not that familiar with the street renewal project. The fact that the area is a pilot project for the growth management plan didn't influence his decision to locate there either.
"I don't think it made it easier or harder for us to open. I just saw the space was available and thought there was potential to run a good restaurant and for me to become my own boss," says Ryen. "Of course it would help if they got the street all nice and landscaped and everything, but I'm one of those people who won't believe it until I see it."
As far as the other vacant storefronts go, Ryen would like to see them filled with a small bank and perhaps a convenience store.
"I've heard someone talk about opening a small grocery store next door. That would be great," he says.
But the big grocery store couldn't make it, so chances are a small one will have a hard time surviving as well. The vacant Excell store is on everyone's mind.
"I went as far as to send a letter to the city asking them to condemn the store," says Numbers. "They can do that, if it's an eyesore or if it's unsafe. It's not helping anyone as it's looking right now."
Leroy Eadie, an urban planner with the city of Spokane, says at least two people are seriously interested in that store.
"And we have changed the zoning along the [east side] of the main stretch," he adds. "That was mainly residential, but it's been zoned commercial to sort of balance out the street and help some businesses go in there."
These zoning changes were possible because the area is a designated growth corridor.
And come fall, Lorien Herbs and Natural Foods will relocate to the windmill on South Perry.
"I've lived here in the neighborhood for years, and I have always loved the windmill building. I had to move from the location we are currently in, so we decided to purchase the windmill and move here," says Chris Bansemer, who's owned Lorien for four years but worked at the store for 16. "I wanted to down-size a little, so this is just perfect. We'll move in during August and hopefully be all set in September."
Bansemer has followed the street improvement project just as impatiently as all her neighbors.
"I think it's a great plan. I'm glad to hear that something is finally happening," says Bansemer. "This area has such wonderful potential, it will be very unique to Spokane."
"I know it's taken a long time, but we don't know what's the usual time frame for these projects, since this is the first one," says Reese. "We've done all the design in-house, we've taken that out and gotten the funding and the matching money, and it's working out now. Sure, we'd like to have seen it done two years ago. I think when people see the improvement in the streetscape, that might even attract a tenant for the empty Excell store."