In the cold, dark days of winter, it’s nice to see a few bright rays of light on a drive into downtown Chehalis. Colorful murals, painted utility boxes, and outdoor furniture trimmed with a touch of the Northwest welcome visitors to the city thanks to the Chehalis Community Renaissance Team (CCRT). CCRT is a member of Washington State’s Main Street Program, an economic development organization with the goal of making Chehalis an attractive place to live, work, and play.
Annalee Tobey began with CCRT as a volunteer and is now starting her fifth year as executive director. “I absolutely love working for this organization,” Tobey said.
Four different committees work together under the program. A promotional committee focuses on promoting Chehalis through their website Experience Chehalis and through media such as Facebook and Instagram and e-newsletter campaigns. They also publish promotional pieces including brochures highlighting the city and manage activities like Chehalis Fest.
Another committee handles organization that includes program budgets, volunteer recruitment, finances, and so on. The economic development committee also offers facade soft grants and digital grants to improve storefronts or facades to business owners in the historic downtown.
The design committee focuses on art and design projects in the city — the part that sparkles. “They knew they wanted more color and art downtown, but didn’t know what that would look like,” Tobey said.
Over the past three years, the talented artists created over 70 pieces of art, from garbage can lids and utility boxes to murals and art benches.
Normally the committee spends the wet, colder season planning projects and getting the owner’s permission to paint their building, and buying supplies.
This year was different because stores were closing earlier and individuals were staying home because of COVID-19. Times were tough and projects were put on hold.
As the end of summer approached, the feeling changed. “It felt like it was time for joy, that it was time for some color,” Tobey said. “We decided to jump into it.” Painters and artists were suddenly very busy.
Two murals joined the seven paintings created in 2017. Look up at the north wall of the old Elks Building and see “#15 at Sunset,” a brilliant painting of the vintage steam engine traveling through the stunning Chehalis Valley at sunset. Painted by Thomas Sutley, a former roofer and Irisia Kennedy, a rock climbing instructor, the two artists showed no fear of the height. In the right light, the wall looks like it is on fire.
The wall on the corner of Market and Boistfort streets needed some repair before painting, but now it is a great place for selfies with the mural “Garden Delight.” The vibrant colors of the flowers are just what the art committee wanted. The wall was painted by Irisia Kennedy.
Brightly painted utility boxes add scenic art in unexpected places around town and people responded positively with a wave or a honk. Seven boxes are now beautifully painted and more are planned when the weather is warmer. Look for them as you drive through the main streets of the town or go visit Experience Chehalis for a colored guide.
Garbage cans and metal benches were not forgotten. Over 40 garbage can lids were decorated with Washington State native flowers and a quote around the rim sharing a fact or information about Chehalis. Art benches were painted by local artists who submitted Chehalis-themed concepts.
For those who like a touch of the whimsical or supernatural, look behind the stores on the east side of Market Blvd. where artists and owners had a bit of fun last year. You will find flying saucers, a spaceman, Big Foot, a space turtle, a unicorn, and probably more if you look closely. Last year the Lewis County Museum hosted the first UFO Flying Saucer party which was hugely successful. A mural depicting some of the area’s history with UFOs greet visitors. The mural painted by the talented artists Thomas Sutley and Emily Von Flotow is found on the north end of the city.
“We try to be purposeful with our designs while adding a touch of whimsy and color,” said Tobey. “This is a legacy; we have told our artists. You are creating art that will be here for a long, long time.
So, what does 2021 look like? “We will continue our grant programs, new promotional activities, new ways to promote our downtown businesses through social media and online,” Tobey said. “The design committee will be doing more art and more murals and more utility boxes.” A self-guided tour, a brochure to guide people through Chehalis, a full schedule, and lots of great donors were also mentioned.
“We’re going to give it our all again,” Tobey said.
Local artists are encouraged to leave their mark as more projects are planned to make Chehalis an inviting place to live and work.