San Simeon quake: 10 years later, how Paso rose from the rubble

In the 10 years since that fateful day, Paso Robles has rebuilt, strengthened and revitalized its downtown, which has become a vibrant tourist destination

jlynem@thetribunenews.comDecember 21, 2013 

Three days before Christmas, 10 years ago today, Nick Sherwin was inside Pan Jewelers with his wife and two customers when the San Simeon earthquake hit.

When the violent shaking was over, the second floor of the historic Acorn building was gone, two employees of Ann’s Clothing Store were dead, and the House of Bread next door had been destroyed.

“When I looked out at the building from the City Park, it looked like a pile of toothpicks,” Sherwin recalled, as he flipped through pages of a scrapbook filled with photos of the building from that day.

In addition to taking two lives, the earthquake injured at least 40 people, according to an account at the time, damaged countless commercial and residential properties, resulted in lost businesses and sparked millions of dollars in construction work, some of which continues to this day.

Sherwin, who lost some jewelry and other business-related items when the Acorn building partially collapsed, moved his business a month later to 1244 Pine St., and a decade after the earthquake he continues to welcome old and new customers.

While little has changed for Pan Jewelers, aside from the physical space, the overall business landscape in downtown Paso Robles has undergone a significant transformation since the temblor struck.

Although many businesses did not survive, due in part to the costs associated with relocating and remodeling, the town has evolved into a more chic playground for locals and tourists eager to experience the North County wine scene. It offers an eclectic mix of tenants ranging from gift boutiques and art galleries to fine restaurants, ice cream shops and wine bars.

“It’s like a ball rolling downhill that starts to gather momentum,” Sherwin said. “You have the quality of the restaurants, the wineries and retail, and the word got out that this was the place to be.”

Paso Robles has come roaring back in the decade since the earthquake, said Garrett Wesch, co-owner of Kahunas Surf, Skate & Snow on 12th St. Wesch’s mother, Debbie Wesch, founded the retail shop, and he was inside the store when the earthquake rumbled through town.

In the aftermath, some businesses struggled to wait out the remodels and lost customers in the process. Kahunas was one of the few to survive, and it celebrated 20 years in business this year.

“Now, it’s vibrant, open and bright,” said Wesch, who serves many customers from Los Angeles and Orange County. “Paso has done a really good job figuring out how to make sure it’s the type of place people want to go.”

Poised for growth

At the time of the earthquake, the city was already growing, having gone through the recession of the late 1990s, said Meg Williamson, assistant city manager.

When the earthquake struck, business owners and residents set a clear vision of how the community should be rebuilt, and a consensus was reached that it should retain its historic character, as well as its vibrant mix of businesses and activities.

“It was a real testament to the level of confidence that our business owners had in the economy and the direction the community was going,” Williamson said.

The decisions made years ago to revitalize downtown, and complete the retrofits quickly, blunted the impact of the most recent recession, said Williamson, noting that the Great Recession was “almost as devastating as the earthquake” itself.

Today, the city is in strong financial shape. The city brought in $6 million in sales tax for fiscal year 2013, compared to $5.8 million in fiscal year 2012. The city’s transient occupancy taxes, which have grown every year since 2000, are also up year-to-date by 10 percent over last fiscal year.

“If you look across different communities, we’re very fortunate,” she said. “It has to do with daring entrepreneurs, confident business people and good synergy.”

John Roush, owner of Park Cinemas on Pine Street, acknowledged the earthquake was devastating financially for many businesses. But the new businesses and retrofitted buildings have brought a renewed vitality that has made operating there more attractive.

“Over time, it actually probably strengthened the downtown,” he said. “As a downtown, it has continued to progress, and it is a wonderful place to come visit and shop and be entertained.”

Art moves in

The rebirth of downtown Paso Robles has also opened up opportunities for artists. The 18,000-square-foot space at 1130 Pine St., formerly an auto parts store, was retrofitted in 2009 and is now home to Studios on the Park, a nonprofit art center with space for 25 professional artists.

Sasha Irving, programs director, credits the center’s location across from the downtown park for its attracting about 70,000 visitors annually.

“Imagine starting an arts nonprofit in the depths of the Great Recession in a community that had previously had few art offerings,” Irving said. “I think the success that we’ve had, and the ability to weather the financial storm that we opened our doors into, is due to the fact that people can’t help but find us.”

Steve Encell, who owns the Studios on the Park building and once operated the auto parts store there, remodeled it after the back portion was damaged in the earthquake. Encell, whose own home sustained significant earthquake damage, had many tenants inquire about the space, but he decided to lease the space to Studios on the Park.

“I wanted to give back to the community in a way that would bring people into the town,” he said.

Paso has become a destination now, Encell said, but he noted that it has not come without a price for so many who had been affected by the earthquake, especially those who sustained hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage.

“The debt was hard to get through, and that coupled with the downturn in the economy compounded it,” he said.

The cost of construction, he said, means building owners have had to pass on the costs of higher rent to tenants, who have had to become increasingly specialized in order to turn a profit.

“It (downtown Paso) is going to take on a different look because the tenants that can afford to be in there,” he said.

New faces in town

One new business on the square is Brown Butter Cookie Co., which moved its second location into the refurbished Acorn building on 12th Street in the fall.

Building owners Brett Van Steenwyk and Debbie Lorenz, bought the renovated iconic building last year. They also own the OddFellows building and the property next door at 811 12th St., which is still under construction, Lorenz said.

In addition to Brown Butter Cookie Co., the Acorn building is also home to Glen Air, an aerospace engineering firm, Parrish Family Vineyard’s wine tasting room, and Thai Classic Cuisine.

“We’re just trying to do more things to draw more people to the downtown and keep them there,” said Lorenz, who recently returned the chimes to the Acorn building clock tower and replaced the timepiece.

For Sherwin, the memories of the earthquake rolling into town will never leave. Even now, if he’s in the store, rattling from a truck rumbling down the street gives him pause.

Yet, he’s excited about what’s to come, and he credits the targeted marketing efforts of downtown business owners, word of mouth from customers and special events, for bringing people back downtown.

As traumatic as the earthquake was for those who experienced it, Sherwin said, “it made people focus and recognize what Paso has always had.”

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