With construction of a 93-room hotel underway and plans for a $2 million senior center in the works, the future of Hermiston’s downtown is looking bright.

“If you’ve ever thought downtown needs x, y, or z you’re never going to see a better opportunity than in the next two years,” assistant city manager Mark Morgan said.

The city set its sights on reeling in a new hotel two years ago. Now that ground has been broken on a new Holiday Inn Express on the corner of Hermiston Avenue and Highway 395, the next goal is to bring in more businesses to help entice hotel guests to venture downtown.

A package of information recently put together by the city touts the new hotel, which based on traditional occupancy rates for Holiday Inn Express as well as for Hermiston is expected to host between 56 and 112 out-of-town guests a night. It also points out projects that are currently bringing in visitors, such as Kennison Field, and ones that are expected to boost travel to Hermiston soon, such as the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center.

Morgan said the information was sent out to local businesses and the Chamber of Commerce first. City staff are also sending the information to wineries, coffee chains and other businesses in the region.

“The city constantly gets comments from people in the community about, ‘what downtown needs,’ and they’re generally recommendations like coffee shops, wine tasting rooms, or restaurants,” Mayor David Drotzmann said in a statement accompanying the report. “The problem is that none of those are catalyst-type developments; well now is the time for an entrepreneur to take advantage of a game-changing opportunity.”

In 2013, Drotzmann put together a Hotel Task Force to work on increasing Hermiston’s hotel capacity after reports that during sports tournaments people were driving to Pendleton to spend the night because everywhere in Hermiston was full.

The task force found that Hermiston’s hotel occupancy rates were at about 66 percent, which was 8 percent higher than the state average and almost 19 percent higher than the average for Eastern Oregon.

After local businessman Mitch Myers sold the Hermiston Avenue property to InnSight Management, the city agreed to pay up to $50,000 to move a sewer line running down the property and also offered $40,000 in facade grant money in exchange for the hotel developer to greatly increase the amount of brickwork on the outside of the building.

“We wanted to make sure it kind of tied into downtown,” Morgan said.

The grant money came from the city’s urban renewal district, which freezes the amount of property tax revenue taxing districts get from downtown for 20 years, then skims off the extra money generated by rising property values and re-invests it into the downtown district.

Morgan said the city conservatively estimated the district would generate $2.5 million over the 20-year period, but the new hotel will likely push that number up to somewhere around $4 million. Now that ground has officially broken on the project, Morgan said the next fiscal year’s budget will probably include the money to get started on building a “festival street” along Second Street in front of city hall and the former Roemarks building.

“We didn’t want to count our chickens before they hatched,” Morgan said.

The festival street will host large events like the city’s annual Cinco de Mayo celebration, but Morgan said the urban renewal agency has also set aside $100,000 to create new events. He said large events can actually disrupt traffic to downtown businesses, so many of the events will likely be smaller “passive programming” like live music on certain nights of the week or the nightly holiday light show that had its first run in December.

Not included in the current iteration of the city’s business-recruitment packet is the Dec. 28 decision by the city council to locate the new $2 million senior center downtown on Ridgeway Avenue behind the Hermiston Public Library, which is also expected to increase foot traffic downtown.

Shannon Snyder, owner of Defining Details on Main Street, said the city’s efforts to help revitalize downtown seem to have already paid off in increased shoppers at her business over the last year, particularly on the night of the tree-lighting ceremony in December.

“That was a good night,” she said. “We saw lots of people.”

She said she’s glad to hear the city is trying to use the new hotel to recruit new businesses downtown, and she believes the hotel will be successful in drawing new businesses in. She said she hopes to see more retail, coffee shops and restaurants since those seem to foster the most foot traffic. She also expects the hotel to increase the number of customers for downtown shops.

“I hope people mosey on down and find some of our cute stores,” she said.

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