Toledo focuses on art to boost downtown

This mosaic mural is located next to Toledo City Hall. Mayor Rod Cross said he would like to see more murals along Main Street as the city seeks to revitalize the arts in Toledo. Toledo Main Street will get a fresh look in the near future as the Arts Revitalization of Toledo (ARTS) committee works to bring new life to the downtown area. (Photos by Casey Felton)

If all goes as planned, Toledo’s downtown will be spruced up in the near future with pressure-washed storefronts housing pop-up “phantom” window art galleries — and visitors strolling the sidewalks.

Thanks to the Arts Revitalization of Toledo (ARTS) committee, work will begin soon to clean up aging buildings on Main Street and host temporary window galleries in the vacant spaces.

Toledo City Manager Judy Richter explained that the pop-up galleries will showcase both art and the buildings themselves. She hopes to have artists displaying their work by late March or early April, with the artists chosen for the multi-month displays having a biography page and contact information in the window and on the project’s website. The artists will receive 100 percent of sales of their work.

There is no cost to the artist, and the storefront windows will have lighting, as well as heat if necessary, along with backdrops donated by the Newport Visual Arts Center.

“It’s exciting, and it’s starting to pick up good energy,” said Richter of the revitalization project. “We have to get people to see that downtown is a hidden gem.”

She said “quite a cross-section” of people are serving on the planning committee for the project, ranging from local artist Janet Runger of Crow’s Nest Gallery to representatives of Georgia-Pacific and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. Toledo High School students are working on website design and fabrication, Facebook and Instagram for the project.

“The mayor is playing a big role in this,” Richter said. “It’s pretty cool to bring all of these different people together.”

She said the city has hired a consultant, Rachael Maddock-Hughes, principal and founder of Sequoia Consulting of Corvallis, to shepherd the projects along. But the consultant emphasized that she is not driving any of the projects — they will be chosen and led by the city.

Maddock-Hughes said while her work is “to breathe new life in Toledo, particularly downtown, we want all the projects to be community led.”

Mayor Rod Cross was the impetus for the project, with the goal of creating a thriving downtown district, encouraging more people to make a stop along Toledo’s Main Street when they’re visiting Newport — just seven miles away — and helping local artists market their art.

“This is part of what the mayor calls ‘building back better’ and promoting the city of Toledo,” said Maddock-Hughes, who was previously deputy director of Cascades West Council of Governments.

She said resource development and new initiatives will be an important focus for her, and she is working on an application to the Oregon Main Street program, as well as a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Block Grant that could lead to a marketing plan for the city.

And the Oregon Coastal Visitors Association has just awarded the group a $10,000 grant for a mural project. “The arts are the centric focus to push revitalization of downtown,” she emphasized.

Cross is pleased by the cross-section of people and agencies involved in planning the revitalization. “People from around the state are working for us, including Travel Oregon,” he said of the state’s official tourism site. “We’re looking to get as big a cross-section as we can and still have it be manageable and local. We’re trying to do this in a way that includes everybody.”

Cross said the storefront displays will focus on youth, local and tribal artists. “We feel the tribe is a huge part of who we are,” he noted. “They’re an integral part of this community. We’re all part of the fabric of Toledo. We’re more than just the (Georgia-Pacific) mill.”

But the bottom line for the project is to serve residents and attract coastal visitors. “Toledo already has so much going on, like the Wooden Boat Show and Summer Festival,” Maddock-Hughes said, adding the project committee hopes eventually to blend art, history and industry, and is “extraordinarily fun and exciting.

“I feel like there’s a lot of momentum in general,” Maddock-Hughes added. “The whole community is focused on building the arts.”

That momentum is echoed by Cross, who acknowledged that two previous attempts to boost Main Street in the past decades did not meet with ongoing success. “Mayor Sharon Branstiter’s death and the recession took us down a bunch of notches,” Cross said of a previous revitalization effort. “But one of the things I have seen with the pandemic is the need to come out stronger than before. And I want to see Toledo come out of this stronger than before.”

Local artist Michael Gibbons devoted much time to promoting the arts in Toledo, and Cross said that with his death last summer, “it brought home how much the arts can mean to people and to a community struggling during this time of isolation. I feel the arts can bring us back together in a way that was not done before.”

Toledo’s three small museums — the Yaquina River Museum of Art, Toledo History Center and the Yaquina Pacific Railroad Historical Society — are involved in the planning as well. James Nelson, curator of the Yaquina River Museum, said of the revitalization project, “we would be part of any effort to raise arts awareness. The potential is great for artists if there’s enough street traffic.”

“Part of my dream is to have murals extend along Main Street from the mosaic mural next to city hall,” Cross said. “Murals can be portable and temporary. With the advent of modern printing, they can also be lower cost.”

The phantom gallery windows will give information about the building itself and how to reach the owner, for any visitors interested in renting the space. “So we’re marketing not only the art but the downtown itself,” Cross explained. “The phantom galleries are just the top of the iceberg.”

Ideas don’t stop with Main Street. Cross said the city has initiated a study about starting an urban renewal district that would include all of Business Highway 20, Main Street and a couple of other areas. “That would bring in money to help businesses improve facades, help new businesses get started, and help grow the town using a public-private partnership,” he said.

In addition, Cross noted that zoning is already in place downtown for mixed use — commercial on the ground floor and residential on the upper floors. That could mean galleries at street level and apartments above.

Also on the city’s radar is the possibility of including in the city’s urban growth boundary a portion of vacant land on the north side of Highway 20 across from Arcadia Road, with potential to site a motel there.

“We’re not only having the little picture in front of us but the big picture as well,” Cross explained.

As Maddock-Hughes wrote in Toledo’s monthly newsletter, “This project will tap into our existing local cultural, environmental and historical assets to support long-term economic recovery for the city and our residents. We believe we can use art to celebrate our history, our culture and use it as a way to draw more folks to Main Street. We will also have a strong focus on economic activities, such as marketing and improved signage.”

“I feel very positive about this project,” Cross said. “Every time we encounter an obstacle, we find a way to work around it. It’s been a joy to me.”

Owners of empty storefronts downtown are invited to contact Toledo City Hall to discuss receiving free pressure washing. For details, email [email protected]

Phantom gallery applications are now available in English and Spanish for Lincoln County artists, and special effort will be made to contact homeless artists, thanks to a suggestion by City Councilor Betty Kamikawa.

Due date for applications is 11:59 p.m. March 8. Artists will be selected and notified by March 15. For an application, visit: https://forms.gle/TShWWm9EGRzduNKZA or the above email.

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This mosaic mural is located next to Toledo City Hall. Mayor Rod Cross said he would like to see more murals along Main Street as the city seeks to revitalize the arts in Toledo. Toledo Main Street will get a fresh look in the near future as the Arts Revitalization of Toledo (ARTS) committee works to bring new life to the downtown area. (Photos by Casey Felton)