DownTown Issaquah Association charts new course
April 26, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
The decision to oust the longtime DownTown Issaquah Association executive director has not impeded the organization in the run-up to ArtWalk, a spring and summer staple for downtown merchants.
Organizers credited former Executive Director Greg Spranger and former Cultural Events Manager Michael Johnson with building solid support for the event.
The upcoming ArtWalk has focused renewed attention on a February staff shakeup at the downtown business organization. ArtWalk returns for a 10th season May 6 and runs one Friday each month until September.
DownTown Issaquah Association leaders decided to scrap the executive director position and hired another candidate as community relations manager rather than longtime executive director Spranger. Johnson then resigned in protest.
The decision prompted angry letters to the editor and hard feelings among some downtown merchants and supporters.
Spranger helped launch ArtWalk a decade ago, spearheaded the effort to restore the historic Hailstone Feed Store as a community space and supported countless community events.
“Michael and Greg were, and they still are, absolutely part of the fabric of this community, and so much of it was wrapped up in their personalities and their energy,” Downtown Issaquah Association President David Irons said. “If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have these events — no question, hands down.”
Tanya Alter, community relations manager for the organization, said outreach to members and merchants is essential as the DownTown Issaquah Association prepares for ArtWalk.
“We just want to make Issaquah great, just like Michael and Greg did,” she said. “We really want to keep doing what they did and building upon what they started. We just want other people to recognize that as well. We’re not replacing them. We’re just adding on.”
Many merchants welcomed Alter and Cultural Events Coordinator Annique Bennett. Still, some people remain upset about the decision to replace Spranger.
“I don’t really let that bother me. I can’t. I’m so sorry that people feel this way,” Alter said. “I’m trying to reach out to everybody that’s been involved in ArtWalk in the past.”
Changes prompt criticism
Bryce Van Parys, Hammond Ashley Violins general manager, said the downtown shop plans to sit out ArtWalk for the year, in part due to the DownTown Issaquah Association staffing changes.
“I can only anticipate that there will be a lot of fires to put out, because somebody will be doing it for the first time,” he said. “You’re just never going to know until you’re in the middle of it. I’m sure it’s going to be different. I will wish them the best and hope that it remains successful.”
Irons said the organization endeavors to remain responsive to members and residents — even if the outreach invites criticism.
“Change is always going to make some people unhappy — and that’s fair, and that’s right,” he said. “We are talking about people’s lives here. When you’re dealing with people, it’s impossible to meet all of the needs of everyone.”
The short timeline to coordinate ArtWalk presented a challenge, but organizers said the amount of lead-time should not impact the event.
Bennett coordinated cultural events in Bothell and Everett before joining the DownTown Issaquah Association and taking on ArtWalk.
“This isn’t a complicated event,” she said. “It’s a community event, and you want to make sure that you’re careful to take the time to get to know everybody and introduce yourself to everyone.”
The organization’s budget is about $75,000 per year. The city provides grant dollars to produce events, including ArtWalk and the Fenders on Front Street car show.
The plan to form the DownTown Issaquah Association in order to boost businesses in the cultural and business district germinated in 1994.
Supporting ‘a vibrant downtown’
Irons, a former King County councilman and county executive candidate, said the mission remains unchanged 17 years later.
“So much of what we do is driven to help and support the local businesses so we have a vibrant downtown community,” he said.
Nowadays, the organization claims about 50 members, though the number should increase throughout the year as members renew, he added.
Irons said the DownTown Issaquah Association should focus on downtown merchants and should probably not expand to include more than 80 to 100 members — a fraction of the more than 450 members of the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce.
“I really look at us as not even as a small chamber, but as a different type of organization,” he said.
Karen Abel credited the DownTown Issaquah Association for fostering a vibrant arts hub. The artEAST executive director also praised Spranger and others for fostering successful ArtWalk and Music on the Streets programs. Music on the Streets, a popular outdoor concert series, is due to return in June.
“My feeling is that DIA and its early leadership, including Michael Johnson, gave ArtWalk and the music program very sturdy legs, and really helped put it on the map,” she said. “So, the new DIA members and the volunteers are going to be able to grow the program in positive ways over several years.”
The artists collective opened a larger downtown arts center in November, and the upcoming ArtWalk season is a chance to show off the space.
“We just opened the doors of our new art center, so we’re kind of used to change and rapid growth,” Abel said. “So, we’ve got to keep a long-term vision.”
In addition to ArtWalk, the downtown organization is seeking to build broader membership in the historic Front Street corridor and add residential members. The staff is also focused on creating year-round programs, perhaps a blues night on a slow weeknight at a restaurant.
“Things will have a similar feel, but we’re going to get there by a different route,” Irons said.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.