Tom Vialpando in downtown Vale on Thursday, Nov. 5. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

An opportunity to revitalize downtown Vale ought not be missed. A flush of government cash about to be unleashed could do wonders. But the community – its people, government leaders and businesses – need to act quickly.

The federal government is sending billions out to states and local communities. Gov. Kate Brown has already outlined how she’d like to spend it, including a chunk for rural areas like Malheur County. And state legislators are taking their own turn at devising a wish list.

This is a rare moment. This kind of money usually isn’t available, and state leaders are looking to invest the money with impact. That means building or repairing things, not starting programs.

Vale as a community needs to be ambitious at this moment. The town should muster a plan that shows focus, efficiency and impact. The town needs to put itself in line for a share of that money.

For Vale, the list of needs could grow long and expensive in a hurry. What’s needed is a simple decision: We need to start somewhere.

And downtown, especially A Street, could be that starting point.

There is a chance to build a vibrant downtown section, assuming the money comes. Let’s consider the possibilities.

Let’s say as a community Vale decides to focus on a few blocks of A Street, maybe from U.S. Bank east to the new Vale City Hall. When you walk that stretch and look up on either side of the street, you see buildings with great architecture and character. But you also see buildings that are underutilized – some empty storefronts, some facades a mish-mash of signs and faded paint.

Now, imagine the result of investing in downtown. Imagine a stretch of interesting buildings, maybe with historic markers, perhaps even a theme of some sort. Imagine a street that is an inviting place to stop, to linger, to sit.

The street daily carries thousands of rigs through town, most on their way from here to there with no thought to stopping in Vale. But think of towns that have appealing downtowns such Sisters, Pendleton, or Enterprise. They don’t have marquee attractions. They just seem like a pleasant place to stop, grab a coffee or beer or an ice cream cone and dally.

Catching just a fraction of that passing traffic could make a big difference for Vale. The dollars they leave behind would help businesses survive, keep employees at work – and would circulate through town over and over again.

That fresh appearance in turn could draw in even more businesses. We’re talking local shops with interesting merchandise and services. We’re not talking about bringing in major factories or other large employers.

Vale already is heading for a change downtown. The old Merc building, damaged by the ice storms of 2016, is no longer a dark hulk. Instead, the structure is gone, the site cleaned up. The derelict block across the street seems headed the same direction. The long-shuttered car dealership is likely to face the wrecking crew to make way for a general store. This all argues for keeping up the pace of revitalization.

A plan to enliven downtown should incorporate some of the historic relics in town. A priority ought to be to get the Rex Theater fully restored, turned into an active community center beckoning with tradition. The Drexel Hotel windows could become more impressive museums of local history, and the First Bank of Vale across the street could finally be fully restored and put to good use.

Imagine the blend of small shops, places to eat, and venues that provide “gee whiz” history lessons for those strolling along the streets.

One obvious criticism of this plan is that this creates the “haves” and the “have nots” – parts of the downtown corridor are left out. Well, not really. If we can successfully pull off a focused project, there will be inspiration to keep up the effort. But we have to start somewhere – we can’t do it all at once.

So, how do we get this done? We’re racing the clock if we truly want to get a share of that state and federal money. That means a community summit needs to be held – and soon. Who should be there?

Mayor Tom Vialpando, for sure, for he has visions for downtown. Key building owners along A Street need to be there. And then those who know best the plumbing of government financing should be there to advise and give tips. We bet Vale could lure folks from Snake River Economic Development Association, TVCC’s Small Business Development Center, Greater Eastern Oregon Development Corp., the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Region Board, state officials from Business Oregon and the governor’s Regional Solutions Team, federal agencies such as BLM and particularly the economic arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Representatives of our state legislators and Congressional delegation ought to be there too.

This won’t be easy, and the easier path would be to do nothing. But we bet there are enough folks in Vale who aren’t willing to watch storefronts wink out one by one. We bet there are enough people who have pride in Vale who are ready to step up and make something happen.

The community could build economic strength, add to the tax rolls, and provide more local jobs than ever. Vale could again sparkle along the Oregon Trail, becoming once more a welcoming mecca for travelers and visitors. – LZ

WHAT'S YOUR VIEW? Send comments or questions to Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected]