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Old Downtown Eugene Building Could Transform Into Next Innovation Hub

There’s a big push to transform downtown Eugene into an innovation district, where techies, artists, scientists and entrepreneurs can connect. One group hopes to turn a shuttered former department store into the next innovation hub. Supporters hope a public / private partnership can make it happen.

This 66-thousand square foot building across from the Eugene bus station has been empty since 2013. That’s when Lane Community College moved its downtown campus to a new location. The shuttered space has served as storage for the college as it renovates buildings on the main campus.
Stapleton: “The space we’re standing in now is the former lobby and main floor space of the old Montgomery Ward.”
John Stapleton is an architect. He says this building has good bones. LCC bought it in the 1980s and converted it to classrooms. Stapleton can see beyond the dark, crowded room to its former glory.

Stapleton: “So, it’s quite a breathtaking and interesting space. You can imagine when department stores were a really big deal and they really wanted to showcase everything that they had. There was a big wall of windows on the street side that are currently partially covered up that we might uncover and it was meant to be a real experience… and that’s kind of the feel that we’d think we might be able to restore.”
A lot has to happen before this space can be functional again. Stapleton is working with a group of people in arts, technology and biotech. They want to create an innovation hub.

Stapleton: “There’s an imagining of a really kind of open shared concept where all the building users have a bunch of resources they can all use to enhance their missions and they synergize their efforts.”
This building could join other business incubators RAIN and Ferti-lab downtown to form an innovation district. These are collaborations between educational institutions, entrepreneurs, start-ups, scientists all gathered close together, where coffee is readily available. According to the Brookings Institution, these hubs are a new phenomenon in cities from Atlanta to Portland.

Brett Rowlett is Director of Governmental and Community Relations with LCC, which still owns the building.  He says the college is hopeful about the idea but it needs the city’s help to make it happen.
Rowlett: “We’re in the middle of a 5.8 million dollar deficit just for next school year so we’re making some really tough choices on campus about how to move forward financially and we have to make sure anything we do with this building doesn’t make our financial situation on campus worse
Last week, the LCC Board of Education voted unanimously to support the project. The Eugene City Council is considering extending its downtown urban renewal district in order to help fund the LCC project. This is where that public / private partnership comes in. Eugene has had success with urban renewal in building the Hult Center and downtown public library. Dave Hauser is with the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce, which supports the project.
Hauser: “We’re seeing in our region this burgeoning start up and innovation scene and so creating space where that activity can happen is important and I think would fuel continued growth.”
It will cost several million dollars to make this building functional. To make it beautiful will cost even more. But architect John Stapleton says renovating an old building like this one is an example of sustainable development-- and it helps enhance Eugene’s downtown.
Stapleton: “Restoring these buildings so they have some character, some life, is really important to us. The Broadway Commerce Center and some of the other projects have turned the downtown around. This could be another component like that. So in that sense, we feel it’s really important to give the building some character on the street.”
The Eugene City Council holds a work session on the LCC Downtown Building this Wednesday at noon. Next Monday, there’s a public hearing on the city’s proposed projects for Urban Renewal District funding.

Rachael McDonald is KLCC’s former News Director. Rachael has a BA in English from the University of Oregon. She started out in public radio as a newsroom volunteer at KLCC in 2000. After reporting for the Northwest News Network and KAZU, Rachael returned to KLCC in 2007 as Morning Edition host and a general assignment reporter covering politics, the environment, education, and the arts. She was hired as KLCC News Director in 2018. Rachael departed KLCC in June, 2022.
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