Oregon Garden’s effect on Silverton still uncertain

Oregon Garden’s effect on Silverton still uncertain

Aimee Curl

Nestled in the Willamette valley about 40 miles southeast of Portland, Silverton feels a little like a town time forgot – dimes are good for an hour of parking, but meters still take pennies; there are no stoplights downtown, but there is a barbershop and a diner.

Before The Oregon Garden opened in Silverton three years ago, there was a lot of speculation that big changes were ahead. There were fears of big city traffic snarls. There were hopes that the new attraction would jumpstart development downtown.

Marcia Branstetter, a real estate broker and co-owner of Silverton Realty, said she remembers initially getting a number of calls from developers located out of the area.

There was a real surge in the beginning of people wanting to buy commercial properties, she said. People thought (real estate) was going to go great guns.

But the nightmare traffic snarls haven’t come to Silverton, and neither has the development boom nor the 400,000 annual attendance originally projected for the garden.

Attendance hasn’t materialized in the volume originally projected, said Mason Branstetter, Marcia’s husband and co-owner of Silverton Realty. It’s no fault of the garden. A little thing called 9-11 came along.

The Oregon Garden, which had attendance around 250,000 during its first year, saw this number fall to about 100,000 in 2003, prompting staff cuts and the reduction of operating hours this year.

However, Mason Branstetter, who is also a member of the garden board, said things there are headed in the right direction.

The garden is like any start-up business. I don’t care what it is, you are going to have some periods of time where you will have to manage your goals and make some adjustments, he said.

While it may not have sparked the development residents expected, Gene Oster, an insurance salesman who owns commercial property downtown, said the garden has had an effect on the community.

Silverton has a wonderful downtown. The Oregon Garden didn’t make Silverton, it was there before the garden was even a thought, but the garden has given the downtown tremendous exposure to people that wouldn’t have experienced it, he said.

While it may not be directly related to the garden, Silverton has seen some recent growth in residential development, the opening of new art galleries and antique shops downtown, and the emergence of a handful of new bed and breakfasts.

Sheila Rosborough, who opened the Water Street Inn with her daughter-in-law three years ago, said her bed and breakfast attracts visitors from all over the country. She said The Oregon Garden, while not a major draw for customers, is on the inn’s Web site as part of a list of things to do in the area.

They usually end up going to the garden, but that’s not why they come, she said. It’s one of the wonderful attractions we can steer them to.

Oster said the emergence of antique shops and art galleries could help give Silverton the identity it’s been searching for.

In order to survive downtown, you have to have a niche, he said. Service-related businesses do well here, but retail is more difficult.

Marcia Branstetter said she’s also noticed more antique shops and art galleries cropping up downtown. She said the First Friday event every month, when all of the galleries stay open in the evening to offer wine and snacks, seems to be growing in popularity.

But this fits more with the flavor of the way downtown is growing than a direct connection to the garden, she said. I’m surprised we haven’t seen the opening of greenhouse shops or outlets that would relate more to the garden itself.

Future plans for downtown development include another antique mall that will take up the building formerly occupied by Handy Hardware. City Manager Bryan Cosgrove said the property has stood vacant for nearly a decade.

Once that building is restored, it will certainly help as far as downtown revitalization, he said.

Cosgrove said the city is considering establishing an urban renewal district to help spruce up the downtown and make better connections between downtown and the garden. He called the garden one piece of the city’s overall economic development plan.

Cosgrove said whether the garden has fallen short of expectations depends on who you talk to.

I think overall it’s been positive, he said. We’re hopeful that the growth continues and that we can get more people up there. I think one of the challenges for the garden is that people think Silverton is in the middle of nowhere.

Oster said it’s simply too soon to draw any meaningful conclusions.

Some people want to try and evaluate the impact of the garden on the community in too short of time. You hear all the hype about The Oregon Garden and it got that initial wow factor, but things always slow down. The true impact of the garden will be long term, he said. It would be interesting to have this same conversation in 20 years.

Copyright 2004 Dolan Media Newswires

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