People shop in downtown Salem. (FILE/Caleb Wolfe/Special to Salem Reporter)

When Jim Vu moved to Salem in 2002, the lights downtown went out for the night at 5 p.m.

Venti’s, the café and bar on Court Street, was the extent of the city’s nightlife.

Downtown was boring. But Vu knew it didn’t have to be.

“If you identify a problem without a solution, it’s just whining,” he said.

The Salem Main Street Association wanted to find that solution. The all-volunteer organization was founded three years ago, and its goal is to make downtown an interesting, “vibrant” place to hang out.

“We just wanted to put on events and make downtown fun,” said Vu, a local banker.

Vu was a founding board member and currently serves as chair of the group’s promotions committee, the branch of the group which organizes events. He describes himself as a “herder of cats” - he tries to get Salem residents to work together to put on events that engage the community, support local businesses, and encourage exploration of Salem’s historic downtown.

The Salem Main Street Association has several upcoming events and projects in the works.

The First Wednesday pop-up market happens the first Wednesday of every month.

The association partners with the Salem Art Walk and local business owners to showcase Salem artists and local products. During the rainy months, the Reed Opera House hosts the event; once the sun comes out, First Wednesdays move to the downtown alleys.

At the February First Wednesday event, several vendors were young people who had moved away from Salem, but returned recently.

Samantha Friesen is one. Friesen, 26, started making home décor as a hobby. A year ago, after being encouraged by friends, she decided to try her hand at selling her knitted goods. She sells her wares at markets like First Wednesday every chance she gets, she said, and also has an online Etsy shop. Her business is called November Made Company.

She grew up in the Salem area, but she left for school in California.

“I was gone for seven years and never thought I’d come back to Salem,” she said. But the city has been changing, she said. “I noticed so many people have been pouring into Salem creatively.”

Jacqueline Heavey, who works on the association’s design committee, said she hopes the association can support local artists with their ongoing restoration of alley spaces.

“Our hope is to create a more colorful backdrop for things like outdoor community art shows, craft fairs and other creative events,” she said. “The alleys get you off the busy thoroughfare and do promote this pedestrian friendly, more intimate feel in the downtown.”

Repurposing alleys as communal gathering spaces has been an ongoing project for the association. After naming several alleys last summer, the association hopes to keep the momentum rolling through soliciting community sponsorships to pay for design and art projects in the alley spaces.

On March 14, the Elsinore Theater will host Salem’s Dancing with the Stars, a fundraiser event for the association.

The event features a ballroom dancing competition between six local stars, each partnered with a professional ballroom dancer. The locals are Collin Box, director of the Capital FC Timbers soccer club; Tiffany Bulgin, co-founder of Isaac’s Room; Soraida Cross, general manager of Bentley’s; Isaac Parker, football coach at Willamette University; Mikki Trowbridge, founder of Yoga + Beer; and Conrad Venti, co-owner of the Venti’s and Basil & Board restaurants.

The professionals come from the Utah Ballroom Dance Company, who will show off their professional moves in a performance following the competition.

The event will take place at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 14. Tickets range in cost from $15 to $40, and can be purchased online, at the Elsinore’s box office, or at the door for an additional $5.

The goal of the event is to raise money for Salem Main Street Association’s future projects, according to Vu, a producer for the show and a former contestant. Last year, the event brought in $8,000. This year, he hopes the association will reach $15,000.

Vu says to stay tuned for the summer months and holiday season to see what the association puts together. There will be continuations of annual events, like On Your Feet Friday scavenger hunts in the summer time, and, if the association meets its fundraising goal, special events and decorations for the winter season. 

Ultimately, Vu said, “I want people to say they live in Salem and have it not sound like an apology,” he said.

For more information about the Salem Main Street Association and their upcoming events, visit SalemMainStreetAssociation.org

CORRECTION: Tiffany Bulgin is co-founder of Isaac’s Room. She was incorrectly listed as the owner of IKE Box and Isaac’s Room.