Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Downtown Strategy

Last night, the council gave the green-light for the “Downtown Retail and Office Strategy”. This marks the first time that we have had a game plan not just for downtown real estate but for downtown business – based on our understanding of why people go downtown, what they buy, and what businesses are doing well there.

The strategy is based on a study of our downtown business trends conducted by the Community and Land Use Economics Group (CLUE), which looked at basic demographics and buying power in the downtown area and also did surveys of both city residents (via the web) and pedestrians downtown. The strategy will be implemented jointly by the city and the Downtown Ventura Organization.

You can download the study as part of the staff report on Agenda Item #5 from last night on the city’s web site. (http://www.cityofventura.net/newsmanager/templates/?a=1876&z=43) It’s pretty interesting stuff, reaching the following conclusions, among others:

* Downtown is an attractive destination to both locals and visitors, but for different reasons.

* The 93001 zip code, which revolves around Downtown, has unique demographics for our county – with an extremely high percentage of young singles seeking an urban lifestyle.
* Downtown is becoming a hub of dining and entertainment for high-income residents.
* Downtown also serves as a local shopping district for people of modest incomes who live nearby as well as downtown workers.
* Downtown could capture a much higher portion of the spending from all these folks than it does now.

We now have 58 restaurants downtown – bordering on the saturation point. In sales tax terms, this is finally beginning to pay off. Sales tax was pretty stagnant downtown for a long time, but last year it went up 15% and is now running at about $700,000 per year. (This is about the same as a large big-box store.) It is likely to go up another 15% this year.

The report contains a whole series of recommendations that you can read, but I’m going to cherry-pick the ones I found interesting and comment on them:

Focus on arts-related offices. There’s considerable evidence that arts-related office-based businesses are congregating downtown, mostly because of the arts and culture scene. Drawing more of them is a good idea. But there are lots of other businesses – known in the economic development business as the “creative class” – who like to be in artsy areas too. These include design professionals, software companies, entrepreneurs, and consultants who engage in a lot of creative work and like to be in a creative environment.

Get some basic businesses downtown, including a Paper Source card and gift shop and one of FedEx Kinkos’ new “mini stores”. Good idea. Isn’t it kind of embarrassing that Kinko’s has no outlet downtown?

Rev up more signature events like the Perry Mason Festival. Ventura is good at this sort of thing and we definitely should do more of it.

Reinforce the antiques and collectibles businesses. These businesses are the bedrock of downtown but many are being driven out by rising rents. Also, some don’t see the need to be on Main Street – or open at night -- because much of their business is wholesale. The report envisions a kind of multi-pronged strategy – ensuring a critical mass of antiques and collectible stores, holding special events such as auctions, and reaching out particularly to the movie and television industry so that set decorators and prop rental houses know that downtown is an important place to visit.

Open a Patagonia retail outlet in the middle of Downtown and build a cluster of surf and outdoor adventure stores around it. This is a great idea. Patagonia is the biggest brand name Ventura has – and they’re moving in creative directions with their own retail stores. Currently, Patagonia’s two stores are kind of off the beaten path. Let’s get them right in the middle of town where they belong.

Encourage store owners and office-based businesses to buy their own space by creating “commercial condomiums”. So many businesses are driven from downtown by high speculative rents. (Think how many spaces are vacant right now because the landlords jacked up the rents.) Let’s find a property owner who wants to subdivide their space and sell it off to the business owners. That way, beloved businesses won’t be driven out as often.

All these are great ideas, and I’m excited about them. Obviously, if it were up to the city itself, we could never get them all done. Indeed, one of the problems we’ve had in town in the past is that whenever somebody wanted to get something done, they would come to the city and expect us to take the initiative – to undertake the job and pay for it too.

But you may remember that last year the city provided some seed money to start the Downtown Ventura Organization, a group of landlords and merchants. DVO is now up and running – and on the verge of hiring an Executive Director, an expert on downtown and Main Street marketing. The city’s seed money will last until 2009. So DVO has to move fast to find other sources of funding – which are likely to involve some kind of ongoing revenue strem from the merchants and landlords themselves.

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