Small Town Creates Big Dreams in Milton-Freewater

The rural community of Milton-Freewater, Oregon, through the hard work and efforts of the Milton-Freewater Chamber Downtown Alliance (MFCDA) and volunteers, is working to create vibrancy and opportunities to celebrate the community. One initiative bringing downtown alive is Freewater Square, a community gathering place on Main Street that hosts events with live music, vendors, food trucks, and a space to gather together with friends and family.

Launched in 2020, this project to transform a vacant parking lot on Main Street into an event and business incubator space stemmed from feedback gathered through community outreach. Community members in this town of just over 7,100 requested more options downtown for family entertainment and activities, shopping, and dining. The plan for Freewater Square began taking shape to serve this need with the goal of drawing people to the downtown district by providing family friendly low-cost activities, a location for groups to hold fundraising and social events, and increased foot traffic to Main Street businesses.

Transforming a Vacant Lot into a Vibrant Plaza

A common challenge for small communities is finding a space; however, this was easy for Freewater Square, says Julie Culjak, Executive Director of the Milton-Freewater Downtown Alliance. The process went smoothly, from identifying the space to obtaining permission to use the lot. A property owner offered a five-year commitment for use of a vacant lot on North Main Street to install a temporary activity plaza. The purpose was to get people interested in coming to the downtown district of North Main Street, while exploring the idea for a permanent public market project. 

Milton-Freewater Downtown Alliance began the planning process for Freewater Square in 2019, which included a grant strategy. By July of 2019 they were ready to start applying for funding and, by July 2020, were able to put their plan into action. Funding has been provided by AARP, Blue Mountain Community Foundation, EURUS, Milton-Freewater Area Foundation, Oregon Community Foundation, Reser Family Foundation, Sherwood Trust, and private donations; support has been provided by the City of Milton-Freewater, Milton-Freewater School District, Chamber of Commerce, Umatilla County, and community volunteers. 

Community Helps Bring Vision to Life

As part of Make a Difference Day in spring 2022, community members volunteered their time to assemble furniture, build and fill planter stands, and organize the space. The vision to create a community living room, a family-friendly place to spend time with friends and loved ones throughout the year, was coming to life with brilliant and colorful murals, outdoor furniture, planters, foosball, ping pong tables, a stage, and more. The Milton-Freewater Downtown Alliance held a mural competition in 2021, which was an opportunity to engage residents and beautify the community in a hands-on way. The finalists—local artists—represented all generations, ranging from ages 13 to 75, and each were awarded prizes made possible by a matching grant. 

Due to COVID challenges, the grand opening was delayed, but was finally held June 30, 2022, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. More than 100 people attended the opening with live music and local vendors, including a donation of ice cream from local business, Walla Walla Cheese Company. The grand opening kicked off  a season of successful events, including Thursday Rocks which was held throughout the summer with live music, food trucks, games, and door prizes donated by local businesses. Freewater Square events feature local vendors, along with local businesses, community organizations, and churches who have the opportunity to bring awareness about their work to the community. Organizers also spread the word about nearby restaurants to event attendees.

Summer events drew residents downtown, and for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic, the community brought back Downtown Trick or Treat. Nearly 3,000 people attended and 35 businesses participated, handing out candy on North Main. Freewater Square was at the center of the celebrations, with music, hot drinks, and activities. 

A Stepping Stone to a Thriving Main Street

In December, Milton-Freewater’s Christmas Magic festivities also centered around Freewater Square. Featuring a market, parade, tree competition, auction, and punch cards to encourage people to shop local, the two days of fun were the final event of the year for Freewater Square. The winter months are used to plan for the following year and to promote spring events. As they look toward the next year, MFCDA is hoping to hire a support staff in 2023 to coordinate and diversify the activities that happen at Freewater Square, including Family Movie Night, and expanding the calendar of events to feature comedy nights, dance lessons, open mic nights, Cinco de Mayo, Día de los Muertos, and more.

The organization has been approached about using Freewater Square to host a public Boxing Club event with vendors, food trucks, and potentially music. “As a result of those conversations, we are in the beginning stages of having Freewater Square available to the public for reservations, so that people can rent the space for things like birthday parties, family reunions, events, markets, club meetings, etc.” says Maryelizabeth Garcia, Executive Director of the Milton-Freewater Chamber Downtown Alliance. Additionally, they are hoping to launch their Business Incubator Program in full, meaning aspiring entrepreneurs and creators would occupy the Business Incubators at Thursdays Rock, the Market, and every public event that offers an opportunity for entrepreneurs to try out their small business idea.

Freewater Square is successfully meeting the goal to bring people downtown, create foot traffic, provide outdoor dining for downtown restaurants, get people interested in downtown, and act as a small business incubator. This temporary activity plaza is a springboard for the next step to develop a permanent public market on another underused lot on North Main Street, and is a stepping stone to a thriving Main Street in Milton-Freewater. 

“A common challenge for small communities is finding a space; however, this was easy for Freewater Square." ~ Julie Culjak, Executive Director of the Milton-Freewater Downtown Alliance

Photo Credit: Milton-Freewater Chamber Downtown Alliance