Discussions about how to make Ferndale more attractive to locals and visitors rarely occur without someone making the suggestion to westernize building fronts along Main Street in the historic downtown section. Given its close proximity to Pioneer Park and its one-of-a-kind collection of original pioneer cedar log cabins, the option to turn Main Street into a late-1800s western theme town has been popular to talk about but has yet to rise to a level where any serious conversations have been held specifically on the topic.
The Town of Winthrop underwent such a ‘westernization’ in the early 1970s after learning travelers were expected to begin driving through their town every day after Highway 20, connecting western and eastern Washington via Washington Pass, was completed.
The family that operated a local lumber mill funded most of the project and the Winthrop Kiwanis Club managed it.
Each downtown business was required to contribute $2,000 to the effort (2018 equivalent would be about $14,000) and 100% participation of all 20 downtown property owners was required for the project to start. 3 businesses, 2 hotels and a restaurant, did not agree to participate in the project and Kiwanis ended up buying out those businesses in order to achieve the needed 100% participation.
The Winthrop westernization project involved rebuilding each building according to strict specifications dictated by the same architect who helped convert nearby Leavenworth into a Bavarian theme town. For example, builders could not use modern finish nails, only less attractive (by today’s standards) common nails with heads were permitted. Paint used could not be glossy and building signs could only be painted on flat surfaces. Carved or raised sign lettering was not allowed. In addition, utility lines were buried underground and sidewalks torn up and replaced with boardwalks.
Soon after the project was completed, a local businessman recalled being at his store one morning and saw “five Greyhound-size buses in town and about 200 people walking right down the middle of the road. We didn’t know whether to lock the door or just what.” He added, “We went from a town that was [about] hunting, fishing and farmers to [one with] thousands of people who wanted souvenirs. … quite a culture shock.”
During a 2012 Winthrop Chamber of Commerce gathering on the 40th anniversary of the westernization project, some said they felt Winthrop was drifting away from the original concept of what the theme town was meant to be in terms of paint colors and construction standards. They felt the Town Council needed to enforce more strictly the Town ordinance that requires all new and existing structures meet appearance standards for the late 1800s, noting some buildings were now sporting nonconforming elements like metal doors and plastic windows.
Last year, Winthrop adopted a major rewrite of its westernization design code in an effort to make it less confusing and easier to administer and enforce.
Tests of adherence to the town’s westernization standards continue. Yesterday, Methow Valley News reported a change to the code had been sought to enable property owners to install solar energy panels in the westernized downtown area. The current code limits installation only to places not visible from Highway 20 and from other public right-of-ways.
Winthrop formed a Westernization Design Review Board to consider such requests. In the case of the solar panels, the Board unanimously recommended the Winthrop Town Council reject the ordinance amendment stating, “while solar energy is a worthy goal, any change that leads to deterioration of the Westernization Ordinance, Winthrop’s economic driver, would be a serious mistake.”
Also speaking to the request during a Town Council meeting was Kristen Smith. According to the Methow Valley News article, Smith is a member of the Westernization board and the marketing director for Methow Trails and the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce. She said Winthrop’s competitive advantage as a tourism destination would be compromised by continuous ordinance amendments. “Westernization is our advantage … and you should fight like hell to keep that advantage.” Smith told the council. The ordinance, she said, “is designed to fend off challenges to our brand.”
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