Technology and history may help Toledo rebound from a devastating fire and economic slowdown.
If only a fraction of the ideas spawned Thursday night hatch, Toledo will be a thriving hub for technology-based businesses and a tourist destination for history lovers, outdoor enthusiasts, and wine and cheese aficionados.
A standing-room-only crowd of nearly 200 packed inside the Toledo Middle School for a brainstorming session on how to keep the community alive after a Christmas morning fire destroyed two downtown businesses and a faltering economy prompted closure of two others.
“Despite the setback, this is really an exciting time in Toledo,” high school teacher Don Schaplow said. “Maybe this will be just the spark we needed.”
The brainstorming session, called Vision Toledo, was the brainchild of Katie (Gruhl) Walter, who graduated from Toledo High School in 1985, owned commercial property in town from 1995 through 2006, and lives in Redmond north of Seattle.
Walter called Mayor Jerry Pratt to see how she could help after hearing about the fire that destroyed the 120-year-old Masonic building and the closure of Toledo Pharmacy and the hardware store. Her former high school debate partner, Lee Reynolds, a 1984 graduate who owns DigiMech, offered to help her organize the Vision: Toledo meeting. He created the logo, set up a website, donated 2,500 business cards, and worked with Walter to develop an online survey.
“When towns are struggling but they’re not desperate, that’s a good time to take a look at how things are going,” Walter said.
After describing Toledo’s assets, challenges, and opportunities, she asked the crowd to break into smaller groups to identify goals.
“We have to put legs on it,” Walter said. “We can’t just have it walk out of here and disappear.”
Dale Merten, Toledo Telephone’s chief operating officer, said the town could adopt the motto: Little Town, Big Internet.
“All this is pretty low impact,” he said. “We’re not going to have some big stinking smokestacks.”
That might help restore Toledo to its former glory.
“We used to have five gas stations in Toledo, and four taverns, and three restaurants” said Esther Borte, a lifelong resident who married a Cowlitz Indian. But now, she said, “Every time somebody tries to do something, somebody says, ‘No, I don’t want that next to my place.’”
The community also needs to improve what already exists.
“Part of problem is loss of a lot of pride,” said Michelle Whitten, city clerk. “We need to get the businesses we have to spruce up what we have.”
As the meeting ended, Mayor Pratt said, “We had a great crowd. But if you go home and forget what we did, we’re just going to die.”
Ideas to Revitalize Toledo
Participants in Thursday’s community meeting met in small groups and offered a number of ideas, including these::
• Establish a foundation to help pay for projects.
• Create a historically accurate replica of the Cowlitz Farm established by the Hudson Bay Company in the late 1830s.
• Continue having high school students conduct oral histories with longtime residents, an effort already started by history teacher Horst Malunat, who created a Toledo Historical Virtual Museum online at http://www.toledo.k12.wa.us/THVM/home.html
• Build a steamboat-shaped visitors’ center downtown promoting the community’s history, recreation, and businesses.
• Work with the Cowlitz tribe to highlight the Native American culture and history.
• Establish signage on Interstate 5 drawing people to the historic St. Francis Xavier Cowlitz Mission, the Mount St. Helens Monument, and possibly the Cowlitz Farm replica.
• Construct a footbridge over the Cowlitz River, develop legacy trails, and build a skateboard park.
• Print brochures, publish an online outdoor magazine or newspaper, and build kiosks and paint murals highlighting historical events and places.
• Establish events to draw people to town, such as fishing derbies, sportsmen’s weekends, wine walks, cheese- and wine-tasting, biker conventions, expanded vintage car shows, Saturday or farmers’ markets, soapbox derbies, concerts in the park, swap meets, and canoe races.
• Divide larger businesses into smaller retail spaces.
• Capitalize on Toledo Telephone Co.’s investment in fibre optics and high-speed Internet by enticing software and engineering firms, call centers, and Netflix, redundant or government data centers to locate in town.
Contribute Your Vision
People are asked to visit the Vision: Toledo website at www.visiontoledo.org to fill out a survey. The answers will help guide the next steps in the grassroots effort to breathe new life into the old town.
Julie McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.