Port of Ilwaco: The new 'hot spot'

BROOK REINHARD photo<br> Visitors and locals alike flock to Ilwaco in the summertime for the Saturday market along the waterfront. There are now more than 25 businesses clustered around the boat basin.

PORT OF ILWACO - It's a sunny Saturday. People walk down the waterfront, carry shopping bags and stop at each store as they pass by. Business is booming in this small coastal town. But it's not Seaside, or Cannon Beach, or even Long Beach.

The new hot spot is the Port of Ilwaco.

"Ilwaco's on the water," says Donna Kinman, co-owner of Nautical Brass in Ilwaco. "If you bring the right businesses to the port, it works - anything on the water works."

The waterfront has certainly been a good place for Kinman. She and her husband, Truman Rew, came to Ilwaco years ago after retiring from the data processing industry. One of their neighbors, who sold a line of brass imported from Italy, asked the couple if they'd like to take over his business. Kinman and Rew agreed, and after several years they decided to open a shop at the port.

In 1998, Nautical Brass was one of the only shops on the waterfront. Three deep-sea charter companies, a seafood processing company, a few inns and a bank crowded the port. There were hardly any customers.

"It was really bad - we'd hit rock bottom," says Port Manager Mack Funk, who started working in Ilwaco in 1999.

The only real business at the time was with fishing boats and "kicker boats," privately owned vessels that would take tourists fishing during the "busy season" of July and August.

"The season here is very short ... most of our money is made in July and August," Funk says. "What we're doing is trying to expand the season."

Kinman and Rew believed they could help turn the port into more than just a fishing village, and they began buying many of the old, dilapidated buildings and fixing them up. As the two started developing the area, new businesses began opening all over the port.

One of the first new shops was Rebecca Fontana's The Canoe Room. Fontana, a former dental-equipment sales representative from Seattle, planned to retire when she moved to Ilwaco nine years ago. But in 1997, boredom prompted her to start making sandwiches for fishermen when they went out to sea every day.

"It was supposed to be retirement," she says. "But nothing was happening."

Running the Bag-it Eatery started taking up more and more time, and Fontana eventually converted her two-story home into a 4,500 square foot restaurant and meeting area.

"For more than 20 years I lived out of a suitcase," says Fontana. "I always follow my heart and my heart said stop, so I did."

Another new business is Time Enough Books, a cozy bookstore with more than 12,000 books in stock. Owners Karla and Peter Nelson say they've always wanted to run a book store, which they opened a little more than two years ago.

"It had been a lifelong dream," Karla Nelson says. "Some existing bookstores had been dangling a carrot in front of us, but my husband saw more potential in the local port."

The shop now draws people from as far away as Seattle.

"We're getting people who come down and say, 'Our friends in Seattle said we should come down and see you,'" Nelson says.

Nelson, who has spent much of her life in Ilwaco, is glad the building is now full of books, instead of fish.

"This building was a cannery in the 1970s," she says. "I actually butchered fish in this very room."

Just two years ago, when the bookstore opened, Ilwaco was still primarily a fishing port - and when the season finished, business slumped in Ilwaco. Kinman, Fontana and Nelson started meeting to find ways to bring more people to the port year-round.

The three women had an idea: Get the businesses to work together, attract new customers and offer discounts for customers going from shop to shop. The "Passport Program" was conceived and as new shops opened in Ilwaco, bright blue banners started appearing on almost every rooftop.

Today, more than a dozen businesses lining the waterfront run a blue "Ilwaco Harbour Village" banner from their rooftops. They funnel customers from one shop to another, and as a result there's more business - and tourist dollars - than ever before in Ilwaco.

At the bookstore, sales went up 30 percent in 2001. This year, they're growing again. The Canoe Room's sales are 30 percent up as well. And local residents are keeping the businesses afloat during the hard winter months when tourists stay away.

"They're the ones who see us through the winter," Fontana says. "We have people from Cannon Beach and Astoria who come by every two weeks to eat in my restaurant."

Visitors coming to the Port of Ilwaco today would hardly recognize the waterfront as it looked just three years ago. There are now multiple art galleries, a renovated bank, an espresso shop, several restaurants and a weekly open-air market on Saturdays. Kinman and Rew remodeled several of their buildings, and new tenants, including Shoalwater Cove Art Gallery and Changes Day Spa, have brought more business to all the Ilwaco shops.

"It's been a very positive message for us," says Randy Powell, who quit his customer service job at United Airlines to frame pictures and co-own Shoalwater Cove with his wife, Marie. "Everyone wants to see this thing succeed here."

Kinman says she's not surprised by how well her tenants - and the other businesses along the port - have done.

"This was undiscovered," she said. "It's always been Ilwaco's asset and it was destined to come back."

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