ELLENSBURG — During an art class at Central Washington University, Monica Miller asked how many of her students had visited Gallery One, the community art center and gallery downtown.
Only a few of the 25 students in the class raised their hand, said Miller, the art center’s incoming executive director.
“We’re three blocks away (from campus), but it feels worlds apart,” she said recently.
Bridging the gap between downtown businesses and Central students is the focus of a new joint effort between the Ellensburg Downtown Association and the Central Communication Agency, a student-run public relations and marketing firm.
A survey by Central Communication Agency found that most students think downtown businesses do not cater to them.
“I think students are caught in thinking that (downtown is) too far, it’s too expensive and it doesn’t have what they need, but in reality that isn’t the case,” said Ann Reynolds, a senior at Central and account executive for Central Communication Agency.
Carolyn Honeycutt, director of the Ellensburg Downtown Association, said she was not surprised by the survey data, but it affirmed the need to take action.
“It gives you more of push to figure out how to fill that gap,” she said.
That first push came last week with a seminar for downtown businesses at Gallery One. During the seminar, account executives from the Central Communication Agency explained how businesses can better reach students.
Among the ideas is reaching out to students when they felt most financially flush — like when they receive financial aid refund checks — and using social media tools, such as Instagram and Facebook, rather than traditional media.
The tips were valuable for Daria Wheeler, co-owner of the Ellensburg Pet Center, who attended the seminar.
“We know what the problem is — we’re not getting the foot traffic we need” from students, she said. “We want to know what we need to do to fix that, and they told us.”
But Wheeler knows there are no quick fixes.
She remembers a few years ago downtown businesses organized an event targeted at students. They offered prizes for showing up, including tickets to a Dave Matthews Band concert. The event was successful, but all the momentum quickly disappeared because there was no follow-up.
“You have to do them over and over again before you have a crowd,” Wheeler said.
Downtown Ellensburg is not the only community dealing with this issue.
And while every downtown is different, the solution requires the same continued, sustained effort.
“It’s really a constant process,” said Sarah O’Brien, communications and Main Street director in Nacogdoches, Texas, a city of 35,000 people.
The city is located close to the Louisana border, and is home to 12,000 students at Steven F. Austin State University.
O’Brien spoke on the issue at the National Main Streets Conference in New Orleans earlier this year.
Students are overly consumed by what’s happening on campus, leaving them with little time or desire to visit the community outside, she said.
“Campuses are designed in their nature to be the be all, end all for these students.” she said. “They often don’t have the time to experience the community which they’re living in.”
Therefore, downtown business owners and organizations, O’Brien said, need to find ways to integrate with the lives of the students.
In Nacogdoches, businesses got involved in the university’s Big Dip ceremony, where students in their junior year receive a class ring and dip their hand in purple paint, the school color. The ceremony is a tradition that marks the students’ entrance into the upperclassman ranks.
Downtown business owners offer discounts and other freebies to those who show up with a purple hand.
But it’s important not to rest on one successful event or collaboration.
“Every year, we look for new ways to be involved with the university,” O’Brien said.
Honeycutt believes it will be essential to introduce the downtown experience to Central students who are used to shopping at malls and big box stores.
While students perceive downtown as too far away, they have no qualms about shopping at Fred Meyer, which is farther west of the Central campus, said Reynolds, the Central Communication Agency account executive.
“When kids aren’t shopping on campus, they’re shopping at Fred Meyer,” she said.
The Ellensburg Pet Center has used Facebook as a way to gain brand recognition.
The page hardly mentions anything about what it sells but rather includes photos of pets, including students with their pets.
Wheeler, the co-owner, said she believes that it promotes her store as a fun place to visit and browse, like a mall.
“If you just keep putting your presence out there, I feel the downtown area can (have) more of that mall vibe,” she said.
A comprehensive effort like the one from Ellensburg Downtown Association and Central Communication agency will only add to her efforts, she said.
For Miller, at Gallery One, the tips offered by the Central students made her realize that downtown businesses and organizations need to do a better job promoting their offerings and make them more accessible to students.
She noted that last week’s “Girls Night Out,” a popular downtown event, fell in the middle of finals week.
“We need to take the cues from them and perhaps shift activities so they’re more” accommodating of student schedules, she said.
The Ellensburg Downtown Association and Central Community Agency are now focused on developing events and programs that help downtown businesses gain brand recognition and loyalty from students.
Those efforts include creating a coupon book featuring downtown businesses or planning a scavenger hunt in which students explore the downtown area, Reynolds said.
Reynolds will graduate from Central in June, but she hopes that the fruit of her efforts, along with that of the other students at Central Communication Agency, can be sustained.
“I’m excited for the day when students say, ‘Let’s go downtown and shop,’ instead of ‘Let’s go to Fred Meyer,’” Reynolds said. “Then I know I did my job right.”