Marcus Larson/News-Register ##
Marcus Larson/News-Register ##

Rucklos: Downtown plans take a detour

My first 90 days on the job: A downtown director’s diary

My first day on the job as executive director of the McMinnville Downtown Association was full of anticipation and excitement. 

After spending the previous 23 years raising their family in Boise, Idaho, Dave Rucklos and his wife, Kim, a speech pathologist with the McMinnville School District, moved to McMinnville by choice. Wanting to be nearer to the beach, they scoured the outer Portland area for a place to call home. The character and independent nature of our historic downtown drew them to settle here. An entrepreneur, Dave has partnered in numerous businesses in  the outdoor apparel and warehouse fulfillment industries.

The MDA spent the previous year taking an introspective look at itself, following some short director tenures. The board reached out to its constituents in an effort to better define the type of director they wanted, and found visibility and outreach at the top of the list.

The job description was broad, but a key element was the need for building relationships with elected officials, property and business owners, and downtown developers and stakeholders. I remember establishing a list of people in the community to sit down with, and creating an opportunity for members to meet and greet their new director. 

It was nearing 9 o’clock the first Saturday evening of March, and I was just completing my first week on the job. My wife and I were enjoying dinner at Pizza Capo

When I introduced myself to co-owner Scott Cunningham, he returned the introduction by saying, “Welcome to the last supper.”  At that point, I didn’t realize how prophetic that statement would be.

I attended an impromptu gathering of downtown food and beverage owners and managers later that evening. The meeting was called to discuss the shape of the future.

COVID-19 was on the loose, and it was threatening to shut down businesses across the state. The governor was set to make a potential closure announcement Tuesday morning.

However, those attending the session expressed concern not for their businesses, but for their employees. This show of concern was echoed again and again within the confines of the Atticus Hotel meeting room.

We were squeezed in like sardines, yet to recognize the new norm of social distancing.But would soon follow.

When Tuesday’s announcement came, McMinnville’s downtown was only physically recognizable. The heart and soul of my new neighborhood had gone missing.

The McMinnville Downtown Association was created in 1986, in response to the exodus and closing of traditional downtown anchor stores. Storefront vacancies had been growing for a while, and property owners were concerned about their investment and community.

Traditional downtown anchors like JC Penney were moving uptown, leaving highly visible gaps up and down Third Street. The association aligned itself with the Main Street America program and set about infusing life back into downtown

With the advent of the area’s wine industry, tourism became a significant contributor to downtown commerce. In keeping with that, the MDA evolved into more of an event management association, producing the likes of the UFO Festival and Parade, Concerts on the Plaza, the Farmer’s Market and annual holiday promotions and parades.

But now, all that was gone. And I quickly realized my job would take a new path.

A crisis was in the works. Immediate triage was needed.

Saving our downtown was the new focus. Assisting our business community through new challenges was now front and center.

The first thing we did was establish a consistent form of communication. Dubbed the "Daily," it reached out with a fireside chat feeling.

Our downtown businesses were afraid, and rightly so. They needed not only timely information, but also assurance they weren't alone in this.

With the help of my creative and technologically capable assistant, we published the “Daily” for the next 60 days. By then, business restrictions were being gradually lifted. 

Soon after, we conducted a survey of MDA members that allowed us to profile our state of affairs. This information proved invaluable in validating concerns and supporting grant applications.

Two-thirds of our businesses were engaged in retail, food service or lodging operations. More than half had been in business for more than 10 years.

Eighty percent were owned by locals, half of them women. Eighty-five percent had closed their storefront operations as a result of the public health emergency.

Seventy percent indicated they could avoid permanent closure for three or more months, but thirty percent said they had no more than two months worth of reserves.

The federal government’s stimulus package was in part created to provide financial support in the form of grants and loans to small businesses. As details emerged, we used the “Daily,” supplemented with personal encounters on the street, to provide details on programs and encourage proprietors to apply. 

The first round of payments generated great disappointment and confusion. Few of our downtown businesses were fortunate enough to secure funds.

The second round did reach our business community. It provided short-term financial relief in the form of Paycheck Protection and SBA EIDL grants and loans.

Eventually, we realized we would need to embrace recovery efforts.

Discussions on a phased in reopening were being conducted at the state level, and we imagined what that might look like. Our mission was devised programs that might assist our downtown members.

Members of the community worried about the ability of our downtown to survive. In response, they donated more than $30,000 toward the purchase of downtown gift cards.

Many of these cards were directed toward employees who would be returning as restrictions were lifted. Others went to graduating high school seniors and library users. 

Food and beverage restrictions would shrink restaurant footprints to 50% of capacity. So we reached out to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, city of McMinnville and Yamhill County Health Department to support out bid for outdoor seating on Third.

We began pursuing grants for outdoor sanitation stations to serve businesses in our urban renewal district. And we remain hopeful of securing such.

We will soon be sharing an aggressive incentive program for facade enhancement, through the city's Urban Renewal Agency.  In addition, “Staying Safe in McMinnville” signage has been distributed to numerous members, reminding us all of the steps we need to keep the curve flat.

My first 90 days has been far different than expected, but life often is.

We’re still a long way from the finish line. Returning to “business as usual” will continue to be challenging until the virus is no longer active.

Entry into Phase Three appears to be a vaccine away, and the public remains cautious in the meantime. So the struggle continues for our downtown. And that will likely continue into the coming year. 

In the end, all of us realize that without our historic downtown, the character and charm of McMinnville would be seriously compromised. Never before has community support been so important. 

Keep that in mind the next time you place an order with Amazon.



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