The Eye wandered downtown yesterday to take in the Bend Summer Festival. There was a huge crowd - of exhibitors, that is, who seemed to outnumber the festival-goers.
I don't have the official numbers yet but attendance at this year's event seemed to be the thinnest I've seen in years, in spite of perfect weather and lots of attractions, including a wide variety of musical entertainment.
If our eyeball estimate was right, it doesn't bode well for a successful summer tourism season. The local visitor industry, hurting after a pitiful winter season, was hoping to play catch-up once the warm weather arrived.
Veteran downtown businessman Duncan McGeary has written repeatedly on his blog that more people seem to be walking into his shop this year, but they're not buying as much. Writing today about his Summer Festival experience, he says: "I got about 156 people in the door, less than the 200 I estimated. It may have been more, though, because it was too busy to keep an accurate count. Didn't seem very busy outside to me, but really, I couldn't tell from the small space I can scan."
McGeary also has been saying all year that he sees a lot more empty parking spaces downtown than he used to. My own experience doesn't bear this out; it seems I always have to drive around the block three or four times before I score a downtown parking space. But Dunc has more savvy about such matters, so I'll yield to his judgment.
The area that seems to be hurting more than downtown is the Old Mill District. I can find a parking space almost anyplace I want there at any time of day. A couple years ago I'd often have to park on the upper terrace (where the office buildings are) and walk down to the shops.
Taking a wild guess here, I'd say that Bend in the bubble years built a lot more retail than there was any solid demand for. Locals never had enough money to sustain all those shops, even during the boom, but tourist dollars kept them afloat. And now the locals are broke, the tourists have stopped coming in such numbers, and those who do come don't have as much to spend.
Prediction: There's going to be a big shakeout, and downtown is going to fare better than the Old Mill District or other newer shopping centers like the Forum or Cascade Village. The reason: its pedestrian-friendly scale and feel.
Downtown provides a pleasant strolling-and-browsing experience. There are lots of stores and restaurants and coffee shops packed close together; you can walk a block and visit six of them. The Old Mill Shops try to offer a similar experience but don't quite make it; the stores are too big and too spread-out. The Forum and Cascade Village don't even come close; they're basically old-fashioned enclosed malls with the roof taken off.
Another problem: The Old Mill seems to contain nothing but women's clothing stores. Aside from the movies, the restaurants and the Orvis shop, I can't think of any reason a man would go there - unless he was dragged along by his wife.