How Atascadero can beef up its downtown

jtarica@thetribunenews.comApril 13, 2013 

Give Atascadero credit. It’s trying.

Last week, the City Council approved creation of a business improvement district that will add a 2 percent assessment to hotel charges specifically to raise money for tourism promotion.

Now I could be cynical and say they’re going to have a far easier time raising this money than spending it, because everyone knows there is no tourism in Atascadero, but let’s put that aside for a moment.

Of course, it’s a good thing to see the city making efforts to fill more hotel beds and draw dollars to local businesses.

It’s no secret you have to spend money to make money, and creating formal, lasting efforts like this are one step in that process.

So kudos to the hoteliers who led the effort and to the City Council for approving the effort. Good job.

But, personally, I would still like to see more focus on efforts that improve Atascadero as an overall destination, rather than spending dough on a shuttle to drive people back and forth to events in Paso Robles.

Creating the “it” factor that Paso has and Atascadero doesn’t, obviously, is a massive undertaking and one that requires the efforts of the entire community.

So when I think of the concept of “business improvement,” I wonder how much this focus is on improving the business of individual existing enterprises with all of their unique quirks and desires, as opposed to improving the well-being of the overall business community.

They do go hand-in-hand, of course, but it’s also very easy to neglect a vision for the whole and sacrifice the individual parts in the process, whether it’s through poor location uses, lax sign ordinances, insufficient parking, whatever.

That’s what comes to mind when I see good local businesses come to Atascadero, only to struggle and ultimately fail when they can’t find the critical mix for success.

A great example of this is Cider Creek Bakery, which expanded to Atascadero last year from its core location in Paso.

They have the product (wonderful muffins, pies and other treats). They have the name recognition (they’ve been in business in the North County for years). They have the dedication and drive (longtime fans remember when they were just a little stop on the side of Highway 46 West on the way to Cambria).

Yet when owner Ken Jevec came to Atascadero, his sweet recipe quickly turned sour.

What went wrong?

“Customerwise, it just kind of wasn’t there,” Jevec said, when I called him up last week.

“The major part of it was trying to do business in Atascadero. It’s tough,” he said, though he noted that the Chamber of Commerce and the city itself were easy to work with. “I wish I knew what the problem with Atascadero was, but I just don’t know.”

I know what the problem is: acres of uninspired strip malls and a totally squandered downtown city park.

To the latter, Jevec concurred: “I couldn’t agree with you more about what they’ve done with Sunken Gardens. Chiropractor offices and doctors and dentists just don’t make it.”

The issue of parking also riles Jevec, who was troubled by trying to operate a bakery in a location whose spaces for customers were often snatched up by employees from nearby businesses.

The city’s most notable parking problem occurs regularly at Colony Square, which today doesn’t have enough room for all the moviegoers, despite cars overflowing into dirt lots that one day will be occupied by buildings.

So what’s Atascadero to do, knowing the types of challenges that doomed Cider Creek?

Keep working, but think bigger than collecting a few bucks from out-of-town guests.

I asked Jevec if he would ever consider returning to the city. He said yes, although his wife might disagree.

And what would he need to give it another go?

“I’d look for a place where I had other things that would help draw business for me.”

In other words, a critical mass. A collection of complementary businesses that can feed off each other.

How do we start? Somebody, please, focus on Sunken Gardens. One office moves off of East or West Mall, and a restaurant moves in. Then another. And another.

If we get enough in that prime location, the momentum will be unstoppable.

Quality restaurants and shops will be elbowing each other for a spot, and maybe one day, Cider Creek will come back too.

Joe Tarica is the presentation editor for The Tribune. Reach him at jtarica@thetribunenews.com or on Twitter @joetarica.

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