Walla Walla, Washington: Best main street

A community comes together downtown

Coming together downtown

Each Friday morning around 7, Jerry "Spud" Cundiff, a trim, white-haired gentleman who has spent his life in the family jewelry business, opens the sidewalk clock outside his store and cranks up its gearworks for another week of timekeeping - as someone has been doing here on Main Street in Walla Walla, Washington, since 1906.

The clock is an antique, but it isn't a relic reminding people that this used to be a bustling little metropolis, the place Theodore Roosevelt praised as making "the pleasantest impression upon my mind of any city I visited while in the Northwest." The clock has work to do, like the rest of downtown Walla Walla--which is thriving, thanks to a 10-year revitalization program.

Walla Walla, population 29,333, is set among the farms of southeastern Washington. In the 1970s, its downtown began a downward slide. Three of the four department stores fled, and a major landmark - the Marcus Whitman, a 12-story luxury hotel built in 1927 - went condo.

 

But Walla Walla retained some critical assets. Whitman College, established in 1882, was parked on the east edge of downtown. A wine industry grew from a few vines in 1977 to 34 wineries today. And there was a nucleus of people who cared.

"People are becoming isolated," says Robert Parrish, owner of downtown's Backstage Bistro. "I wanted us to start associating with each other again, and downtown is the place to do it. You feel more alive here than in a mall."

Says Timothy Bishop, executive director of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, "Our most important decision was to not put all of our eggs into one big basket that was going to fix downtown. It was a succession of mostly small projects."

Today downtown holds renovated Victorian and beaux arts commercial buildings. It has retained the Bon Marché department store - partly housed in the 1917 Liberty Theater - and attracted serious wineries and tasting bars. Finally, last spring, a local entrepreneur named Kyle Mussman reopened the Marcus Whitman, after a $35 million renovation.

Real character is impossible to fake. It grows from within. Walla Walla, which Theodore Roosevelt might well praise today, proves it. - Lawrence Cheek

For information on Walla Walla, call (877) 998-4748 or go to www.wwchamber.com.

MORE WINNERS

Flagstaff, Arizona. Theodore Roosevelt also stayed in this northern Arizona city - specifically at the Weatherford Hotel, now newly restored along with the rest of Flagstaff's attractive historic downtown.

Port Townsend, Washington. Much loved by tourists and residents alike, this Olympic Peninsula city leaps into the 21st century with a renewed 19th-century downtown.