Like many organizations, the role of the Downtown Issaquah Association has changed since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Specifically, Executive Director Corby Casler said, businesses’ need for the organization’s support has increased.
“It’s more intense,” Casler said. “It’s become really listening to the businesses in what they need — just pushing through and driving marketing more than we have in the past, and promoting everything that (the) town has, reminding folks that we are a vital downtown and we will get through this,” she said. “In the meantime, we don’t want to slow things down.”
Meanwhile, the organization’s general expectations — improving the appearance and economic vitality of Issaquah — haven’t changed, and the group hasn’t slowed down, either. Casler noted that in backing COVID-19- conscious business-boosting efforts through the summer and fall, from the Issaquah Streatery to a new restaurant video series, it has actually helped bring about a kind of success that, just a few months ago, seemed improbable.
A Big Leap for Downtown
Back in March, the Issaquah group, like similar organizations nationwide, was faced with a common conundrum: how to adequately support the people and places that make your city special while also adhering to myriad health guidelines and restrictions.
“When COVID hit, it kind of struck everybody — we scrambled knowing that businesses were closing,” Casler said. “We have a lot of small businesses, including some art studios and one-on-one music lessons for kids, where these are very small businesses and really need those face-to-face interactions available to do their jobs.”
Casler said the organization’s immediate intent was just to brainstorm — figure out how to drive people downtown while making sure to also closely follow health guidelines. The earlier part of the pandemic was hard, she said, and some small businesses did close. So a key part of planning was not just finding new ways of support, but also a kind of support that would effectively prevent future closures.
The first major idea was for what is now known as the Streatery, which the association developed with City of Issaquah staff around the time restrictions related to Gov. Jay Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy measures were lifting. After conducting a brief pilot in the summer, the Streatery became a fixture in the city. Starting July 24 and continuing every weekend through Nov. 1, Issaquah’s Front Street and Alder closed to vehicles to allow for restaurants and cafés to expand outdoor seating — something that, as stated in an association press release, brought in record summer sales for some of the retailers and restaurateurs.
“Even though we had to detour folks, it was kind of a (blessing), because people saw areas of Issaquah they didn’t realize were there … it was kind of an experience that became more than just eating out — it became something that was like, ‘This is a fun place to visit,’” Casler said.
Art Freas, an artist and fourth-generation glass worker who owns Art by Fire, noted there was an uptick in business as a result of the Streatery and other efforts.
“This summer was the best since I’ve been here,” he said in the release.
Beyond the Streatery
Around the same time, the Downtown Issaquah Association also launched a web series called Issaquah Restaurant Review Time, on which the owner of Troy’s Salon, Troy Kline, spotlights Issaquah’s various restaurants and artistic offerings with a personal touch.
Executive Director Casler, who noted the series as one way her group is working to publicize the personalities behind the city’s businesses, highlighted the show as bringing additional energy to the organization’s efforts — and just one example of making the most of online opportunities.
Other association-supported downtown-boosting efforts have included the community event Issaquah Goes Apples, which had a virtual emphasis during its run from Oct. 17 through Nov. 21; a virtual glass pumpkin-blowing class from Art by Fire; a scarecrow-decorating competition; a digital reworking of the city’s traditional Zombie Walk; and the Historically Hip Artisan Market. The organization also has listed on its website numerous COVID-19 resources for small businesses.
“We like to demonstrate the meaning of entrepreneurial spirit and find limitless, fresh possibilities through local talent,” Downtown Issaquah Association President Christina Bruning said in a press release.
Looking toward the future, Casler said the DIA also is, when able, working to increase pop-up retail opportunities. “We’re also bringing artists to town, and they’re selling their wares for the holidays,” she said. “We have woodworkers; we have painters … but also (we want to bring) things that people would just want to buy for the holidays for stocking stuffers … just getting (people) downtown and seeing the beauty of the Issaquah downtown during the holidays.”
Casler said she has been impressed by the way merchants have faced ever-changing regulations.
“I’m really proud of how the merchants are withstanding this all,” she said. “It’s been really tough, but the spirit isn’t tough. It’s fun, and this community really feels very close. I think that sense of closeness and ‘we’re all in this together’ help us through a tough time … everybody knows everybody, and that has to be part of the reason why people still have a lot of optimism.”