Retail flail: Yakima trying to fill empty downtown storefronts

YAKIMA, Wash. -- Yakima paid consultants thousands of dollars to help solve a problem: Get rid of those empty storefronts downtown. The consultants delivered several recommendations. KIMA learned not all of them are being implemented.

We spoke at length with Yakima's economic development manager. It was a conversation that revealed no easy fixes. As for the consultants' recommendations, Yakima's leaders plan to follow some them, but can't follow all of them. And some advice they're just going to ignore.

Where there once stood a mall, now, an empty building: mostly vacant, the sign still faintly visible.

"When we look at the old mall, I don't think we'll ever see a shopping center-type environment that people remember return to downtown," said Yakima Economic Development Manager Sean Hawkins.

Walk a few blocks in either direction, and you'll find a number of "For Lease" or "For Sale" signs - more vacant storefronts.

Victor Renteria owns a restaurant downtown.

"When you walk by empty buildings, the impression is not that good," he said.

KIMA asked Hawkins just how many downtown storefronts are empty. He couldn't say.

KIMA asked, "If the goal is to revitalize downtown, shouldn't the city be keeping track of this?"

"We could," said Hawkins. "But, it's really a staffing issue."

Staff issues are also blamed for why Yakima hasn't set up a task force to promote retail growth. It was something recommended by consultants hired by the city. Those same consultants recommended against allowing more fast food and corner stores downtown. But Yakima is resisting.

"That's something that we're definitely not going to do, is pick and choose which ones are going to come and which ones aren't going to be able to come," said Hawkins.

A big problem, says the city, is that a lot of the vacant spaces are just too big for small businesses that might be interested in locating in Yakima.

But, the city is taking up some recommendations: attending a retail conference next month and filling empty storefronts with art. The city believes building owners can play a part, too.

Joe Mann attracts tenants with incentives.

"A lot of times, we'll give a month away for free or we'll help them remodel," he said

Meantime, Yakima leaders hope the new Downtown Plaza will give the area a boost - and give the city a second chance at a first impression.

Hawkins tells KIMA no one on the city's roster is actively working to recruit new retail businesses to Yakima.

Yakima's first step is to attend the RECON conference. It's a global convention for the retail shopping industry. A small group will travel to Las Vegas next month.