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A Thriving Downtown Santa Cruz

tom_honig_sWhen I was in grade school, my classmates came up with a game that we turned into a writing assigment: “The good news is … (fill in the blank) and the bad news is …. (fill in the blank).” And it would go on like that for, oh, 500 words or so.

That seems a good model to follow when writing about Downtown Santa Cruz. Because the bad news is that a number of stores are closing or have closed on Pacific Avenue: the Vault, Borders, Velvet Underground, Bugaboo.

But the good news is that times are changing. Changing times mean new opportunities, and already there are a few new faces showing up along the avenue: Betty Burgers’ sit-down restaurant, Legs, Verve and Stripe.

 

But there’s more bad news (don’t worry, I’ll stop this before it gets any more repetitious). The latest figures prepared for the city show that retail “leakage”—a term that means people are going out of town to shop—is a big problem in Downtown Santa Cruz.

Here’s what leakage means. If you want to buy a men’s suit (OK, not a big item in Santa Cruz, but still…), you can’t buy one in Downtown Santa Cruz. Same with a hammer. Or an oven. So you drive out of town and go elsewhere.

Think about the implications. First, you’ve got sales tax dollars going to jurisdictions other than Santa Cruz. Second, you’ve got people leaving town in their carbon-spewing cars to shop for basic needs. Third, you’re not providing jobs for Santa Cruzans. Fourth, you’re leaving downtown to people other than shoppers—meaning that local folks are not coming downtown.

What’s to be done? Plenty. The City of Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce have hired a retail consultant by the name of Bob Gibbs. A resident of Birmingham, Mich., Gibbs knows a thing or two about the retail industry. And he sees some real opportunity for Santa Cruz’s downtown core. “Santa Cruz has a very strong market that will appeal to a lot of retailers,” he said at a recent Chamber of Commerce meeting.

Some of his recommendations will be easy to adopt. He said, for example, that traffic patterns downtown are confusing. That can be changed. Signs pointing to downtown are nearly invisible. Unless you already know where you’re going, parking is a challenge.

Gibbs also pointed out a kind of local’s joke: that most visitors think that Ocean Street is actually Santa Cruz’s downtown. And many, many visitors know Santa Cruz only as Ocean Street and the beach. There must be ways to improve direction signs and even traffic flow to encourage visitors to find their way to Pacific Avenue.

But there’s a bigger challenge in Santa Cruz, and it’s one that many of us who live here understand: the character of downtown.

Over the past 40 years that I’ve been here, there’s been an anti-chain store philosophy about Pacific Avenue. That philosophy is being challenged by economic realities—you need a mix of locally-owned and national retailers.

I’ve heard local people say, “We don’t want chain stores here because that would make us like other towns.” Well, maybe that’s true, but the reason that other towns have chain stores is that people actually like to shop there. And it’s not a zero-sum game: a locally owned store with a national chain nearby may actually end up with more foot-traffic.There are those, locally, who have realized that certain chain stores might be important. The City of Santa Cruz Economic Development and Redevelopment Department works mostly behind the scenes in trying to attract new business to Santa Cruz. Some city officials get a wistful look in their eyes when you mention, say, an Apple  store or an Anthropologie store. Or even an REI.

There are those who might not be comfortable with an infusion of “outsiders” downtown. It’s time for them to get over it. Even a number of local retailers privately say that they could use more national stores nearby as a way to attract more foot traffic.

So, to get back to the original premise, the bad news is that stores are closing. The good news is that opportunity abounds. And that change is coming. And change is not to be feared. It’s what keeps any downtown alive and thriving.


Read Tom Honig’s online newsletter, the Santa Cruz Observer, available at tomhonig.com

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