Oroville’s downtown Renaissance

With the restoration of old downtown structures, excitement brews among businesses

Jesse Brown and Debi Mills are excited to open The Exchange in downtown Oroville’s Washington Block Building.

Jesse Brown and Debi Mills are excited to open The Exchange in downtown Oroville’s Washington Block Building.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Jesse Brown and Debi Mills walked excitedly through the large space they’ve rented in the old Washington Block Building in downtown Oroville, plotting out their plan for the place. As they are engaged to be married, Mills joked that soon they’ll be not just partners in life but in business as well.

Their vision for The Exchange—named after the last known tenant in the building over 50 years ago, Henry Hunt’s Bank Exchange—is as an upscale bar, where people can enjoy an old-timey cocktail while snacking on small plates.

“We want to specialize in classic cocktails, pre-Prohibition-style drinks,” said Brown.

Inside the space, which is just a portion of the large Washington Block Building on the corner of Montgomery and Myers streets, exposed brick walls evoke the history of the place. The building, named for President George Washington, was built in 1856 and included a five-room basement that housed a popular saloon and gambling parlor called the Bank Exchange. The first floor housed an actual bank, as well as a business owned by Benjamin Myers, for whom Myers Street is named. A second floor was added around 1900.

The Washington Block Building is included in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Oroville Commercial District. “Perhaps the most significant building in the district from the historical perspective is the Washington Block Building,” its listing reads.

But the building, while occupying such a prominent spot in the historical portion of downtown Oroville, had been long abandoned, becoming more of an eyesore than a center of activity. All of that is now changing, due in no small part to the refurbishment of the Oroville Inn, just around the corner on Bird Street. Indeed, the fixing up of the inn, which, like the Washington Block Building, had stood vacant for many years, prompted Mills and Brown to open up their shop downtown.

Bud Tracy takes a moment to relax on a couch recently donated to the Oroville Inn, which he’s working to restore.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

“The remodel of the inn impacted us tremendously,” Mills said. “We immediately started looking for buildings downtown.”

On a recent afternoon inside the lobby of the Oroville Inn, developer—and inn owner—Bud Tracy smiled as he talked about his newest acquisition. The sofa, which occupies a prominent corner in the large foyer, comes with a fun backstory.

“There’s a man in town whose mother was a nurse, and she worked for a woman who rented a suite in the inn in the 1930s,” he began. As the story goes, the man, Stan Starkey—then a young boy—came to the inn with his mother when she tended her patient. And he’d sit on that couch. When the woman died in the early 1960s, she left the couch to him. Just recently, Starkey and his wife, Pam, donated the piece to the inn. Seeing it in the lobby, Tracy recalled, Starkey said, “The old girl’s home.”

Much of the Oroville Inn restoration has been kind of like that, it seems. Tracy pointed to different aspects of the job and recalled their journey to fruition. When it came to the crest and columns that adorn the inn’s façade, for instance, he hired Kyle Campbell, a Chico State sculpting graduate, full time. Some parts had fallen off over the years, so Campbell referenced historical photos to get everything as close to the original as possible. It took him five months to complete the project.

The first phase of the restoration was completed in November, when 70 students from the Northwest Lineman’s College moved into the residential wing. The inn can accommodate up to 120 and Tracy said he hopes to fill more rooms with the next session. Not everything has been smooth sailing, Tracy admitted. For those who are living there, he said, the experience isn’t quite what he had planned. For instance, when they first moved in, the sewer line backed up. Also, Internet has been an issue—even after installing a “massive fiber-optic system,” there were problems. And he had to fight with the city over parking.

But it’s all a work in progress. Construction is underway to restore the ballroom, which Tracy hopes to finish soon because it will help bring the community back to the inn.

“The first phase brought in the linemen,” he said. “The next phase will be about the community.”

The Washington Block Building at the corner of Montgomery and Myers streets.

Photo by Wayne T. Wilson

In addition to the ballroom, he’s working on fixing up the retail spaces that face Bird Street. He hopes to open a steakhouse in one of the large spaces sometime in 2018. In the meantime, there’s a convenience store planned for the corner of Bird and Downer streets, as well as a cafe.

When it comes to downtown, Tracy is optimistic about the momentum he’s seen building, but cautiously so. Recent storms put stress on some of the older downtown buildings, including the one that houses Prospector’s Alley, an indoor mall that he also owns. At the time of our interview, on Thursday (Feb. 9), he was working to repair a roof leak caused by damage due to the storms.

Another reason for the caution is the recent turnover at the Oroville Downtown Business Association. After downtown anchor Coyote Clothing Co. closed its doors, its owner, Donna Jones, and her husband, Alan, resigned from their positions on the board. Alan was president; Donna, treasurer and events coordinator.

“With Donna gone, we’re back to a disjointed downtown,” Tracy lamented, adding that he’s not without hope. “We really need downtown to have one voice, for everyone to be on one page.”

The new president, Marlene Kingsbury, was not available for comment by press time, but recent downtown events, like February’s First Fridays celebration, have gotten positive reviews online.

Wilma Compton, member service and event coordinator for the Oroville Area Chamber of Commerce, says she’s hearing good things about downtown, and that excitement is definitely building.

“More businesses have been popping up, and realtors are saying they’re signing leases,” she said. “Gearhead Barbershop just opened a new location in downtown Oroville. The Galley just opened up, as did Butte County Wine Co. Oroville Inn will have a ballroom, which is more of a community-type room—that will be really cool. And there’s a craft cocktail bar slated to go in on Montgomery Street.

“The sentiment I’ve been hearing is that everything is poised to take off.”

Over at The Exchange (that “craft cocktail bar” Compton referenced), construction is underway. Brown pointed to spots where customers will be able to plug in their laptops or smartphones at their tables, and a large bar will occupy the majority of the space. Brown, who recently resigned from his position at the Berry Creek Rancheria, will serve as bartender. Mills, who also owns the Makeup Room in Gridley, runs the business side of things. They hope to open their doors by April.

“People want to get away from their stressful jobs, to have a place where they can relax,” Brown said. “Chico’s always been ahead of Oroville in that way—we want to keep people here. Other businesses like Purple Line [Urban Winery] and Miners Alley deserve credit for what they’ve done. We are proud to be a part of that.”