Frontlines 11/22


Downtown Debate

Is Santa Rosa’s ‘core area’ a mecca for shoppers or a Beirut for businesses?

The corner of Fourth Street and Mendocino Avenue is, to many, the epicenter of downtown Santa Rosa, the primary crossroads of the city’s retail core. It may also been seen as the junction where business and politics intersect, a vantage point that offers some sharply contrasting opinions on the health and comfort level of the surrounding business community.

From the Santa Rosa Plaza, general manager Chris Facas looks up Fourth Street toward the new Barnes & Noble Bookstore in the revitalized Rosenberg building, and he is encouraged–despite the growing string of vacant storefronts. “We are collectively headed in the right direction,” he asserts. “The fact that we have some businesses that have gone out is no cause for concern.”

As long as the city continues to pursue such downtown attractions as a cultural center or a convention center, the occasional defections of individual businesses represents only “some minor stumbling blocks,” says Facas.

Others are less optimistic. “It’s a little bit tender here. We’re at a critical stage in that we are losing some tenants,” counters Buzz Pauley, a downtown businessman and property owner. “We have had some good strong new tenants come in, like Barnes & Noble, but it’s very hard to compete with the mega-mall retail outlets, the big-box retailers.”

A founder of the Heart of Santa Rosa, a lobbying group for downtown business interests, Pauley is critical of the city’s courtship of increased sales-tax revenues through expansion of the retail centers along Santa Rosa Avenue.

“They say they need the tax dollars, but why?” he asks. “To support more bureaucrats?”

Pauley and other local businessmen aired their concerns this week when the City Council reviewed a new report focusing on the unique problems faced by downtown businesses.

The scattering of vacant storefronts in the three blocks along Fourth Street between B and E streets doesn’t particularly worry Michael Hyman, whose family has owned and operated the Pawn Shop for more than 30 years. “There’s always turnover, but I don’t think the vacancies have been there too long,” he says, adding that new tenants are in the process of occupying two of them.

“Fourth Street seems to be in pretty decent shape,” Hyman adds. “The problem seems to be Mendocino Avenue from Fifth to up there near Cherry.”

Dave Madigan agrees. The owner of a Mendocino Avenue stationery store, Madigan views the defections of each former business neighbor with alarm. “We’re losing downtown businesses to the Marketplace [shopping mall] and the outlying areas because the cost of doing business downtown is so oppressive,” he objects.

His 6,000-square-foot building is assessed $2,000 each year for parking districts, plus another $1,100 for streetscape improvements. It lies just outside a new assessment district for what he calls the “twinkle lights”–year-round Christmas lights–in the trees along the downtown sidewalks.

“To me, the bricks in the sidewalk and that fancy stuff, that doesn’t do anything for my business,” Madigan says. “We had perfectly good sidewalks in the past.”

His larger complaint is poor communication between city government and the business community. “No one at the city seems to ask the actual people who are paying the bill how they feel about these assessments. Are they a benefit to the businesses or a benefit to the City Council to make it look like they are doing something downtown?” he asks.

Madigan and others resisted the assessments that were used to fund the former Downtown Association, a group that was forced to disband when a number of business owners “mutinied.” He is also unhappy with the Downtown Task Force, a 20-member panel of business owners and city representatives formed last year to examine the issues affecting the core retail area and to make recommendations for improving the business climate.

He has waged a high-profile battle against the task force’s suggestion that parking meter rates be bumped significantly higher as a means of increasing vehicle turnover in the metered parking spaces.

That issue is just one of more than a dozen subjects addressed in the task force’s 21-page draft report. Other recommendations include encouraging more housing in the downtown area, planning more evening events, easing parking fines and enforcement, stepping up security measures in city parking garages, and forming a committee to implement the ideas of the city’s 1991 Core Area Development Plan.

The City Council reviewed the report in a study session on Monday night.

Larry Martin, owner of H.M.S. Travel and a member of both the Heart of Santa Rosa and the Downtown Task Force, would like to see the city do more. “The City Council has done a lot of things, but on a reactive basis,” he says. “If government wants to encourage growth, it has to go out and make it happen. You can’t rely on economics and chance.”

At the very least, Martin contends, the city shouldn’t be undermining the downtown’s best efforts to help itself. “We’re making progress, but as we do there are economic influences on the periphery that are inhibiting that progress,” he says. “Didn’t the City Council just approve another shopping center out on Santa Rosa Avenue? Here they are, out of one side of their mouth saying, ‘We really want to support the downtown,’ and then by approving peripheral development, they are sucking the lifeblood out of the downtown.”

Having invested a year in the Task Force and its recommendations, Martin is now hoping those ideas will be given serious consideration. “We want to make damn sure this project doesn’t end up the same way the Core Plan did, which was a pat on the back from the city and then three inches of dust on the back shelf.”

Bruce Robinson

From the Nov. 22-29, 1995 issue of The Sonoma County Independent

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