A decade after the oil spill cleanup closed businesses and displaced residents, the future is looking brighter for Avila Beach.
But even though redevelopment is nearly complete and visitors have returned to the sunny seaside village to eat, shop and stay the night, those who have watched it evolve from its rustic roots say the community is still a diamond in the rough.
Some business owners continue to struggle mid-week and in the off-season. The battered economy and cold, rainy weather dealt them an even tougher time this past year. Hotel bed tax in Avila, for example, collected from July 1, 2009, through May 31, is down about 8 percent from the same period last year, according to county Tax Collector records.
“This huge recession hit just as everything started to settle in,” said Leonard Cohen, president of the Avila Business Association and owner of the Olde Port Inn restaurant.
Making Avila a year-round destination by attracting tourists throughout California, as well as local consumers, has been an ongoing challenge, said Karin Argano, executive director of the association.
“Everyone’s eyes are opened right now because of the economy,” she said. “We need to be smart about reaching out to bring business in.”
In 1988, when oil contamination was discovered beneath the town, Avila was considered funky, with a mobile home park, beach shops, restaurants and grocery on Front Street.
Now — as only a few vacant parcels remain to be sold or developed — the town is nearly completely rebuilt with new hotels, reopened businesses and a far more upscale look. And business owners and community leaders are trying to transform the town into one that’s less dependent on the peak tourist season.
A variety of events and attractions — including area wineries, the Avila Beach Blues Festival, the Friday Fish and Farmers Market and the new Sea Life Center — could become even bigger draws. Avila Beach also should benefit from its participation in the county’s business improvement district, or BID, which assesses a 1 percent levy on occupied hotel rooms to help promote the county as a tourist destination.
Of the 9,000 lodging rooms countywide, a total of 251 — or less than 3 percent — are located in Avila, according to the county’s Visitors and Conference Bureau. The bureau’s figure includes the Avila Lighthouse Suites, Avila La Fonda, Avila Village Inn, Sycamore Mineral Springs, Inn at Avila Beach, the Avila Hot Springs cabins and Joe Momma’s vacation rentals.
The town is already gaining more visibility from such publications as Sunset magazine.
This fall, Savor the Central Coast (co-sponsored by Sunset and the county’s VCB) will hold its finale in Avila Beach with a concert featuring singer Chris Isaak and 20 to 25 restaurants and wineries. Even so, some wonder whether Avila will ever succeed in its quest to be more than a three-month town.
Avila Beach has not fully transitioned from a secret paradise for county families who visit for the day to barbecue or couples staying the night for a special occasion, said Michael Kidd, operator of Joe Momma’s Coffee Shop, the Inn at Avila Beach, Avila La Fonda Hotel and Nekkid Day Spa.
“We have to have something that will give them (locals and tourists) a reason to come on Tuesday in January,” he said.
Kidd estimates that the hotel business in Avila has declined about 30 percent over the last two years.
The La Fonda Hotel, which caters to more upscale tourists and locals seeking a weekend escape, makes money about two months out of the year, he said. His coffee shop, which runs at a loss, serves as “an amenity for the town and hotel guests.”
Still, Kidd is enthusiastic about the town’s long-term prospects and believes Avila must find what he calls “green and clean” alternatives to the beach to remain economically viable. He’s excited about the possibility of a bike/hiking trail from the Bob Jones Trail in Avila to Montaña de Oro and back through Avila’s Wild Cherry Canyon.
Tony Spinelli, owner of Pismo Beach-based Beach Bum Holiday Rentals, agreed, saying that there has to be something to make travelers exit the freeway. He once proposed a Ferris wheel for the pier.
“It’s the best beach along the coast weather-wise,” he said. “But there’s nothing really in Avila, besides the beach, to keep you in Avila.”
Former Avila business owner Pete Kelley, now president of the Avila Community Service District and executive secretary of the Avila Community Foundation, said higher rents and too few year-round residents have hampered business owners’ ability to remain financially healthy 12 months of the year.
Kelley operated Pete’s Seaside Café there from 1977 to 1986 and said that the rents at the time were about the same as those in Oceano or Los Osos. Back then, Kelley paid about 72 cents a square foot. Today, rents in Avila average about $2 to $2.50 per square foot triple net, which means the lessee is responsible for paying taxes, insurance and maintenance in addition to rent.
“Thirty years ago, when I operated a business in Avila, I could close down a month in the winter and still make enough to operate the rest of the year,” he said.
Kelley said he relied on a steady stream of fishermen from Port San Luis (commercial fishing locally has been on the decline for years), locals and construction workers from Diablo Canyon.
“Unless the fishing industry comes back, there’s a huge construction project coming on or more people move back into town, I don’t know if you’ll ever see it happen year-round,” he said.
Kelley also cautioned that a busier town can be a double-edged sword.
“You can throw the baby out with the bath water,” he said. “All the county people and San Joaquin Valley people … if it’s too jammed up and too trendy, people won’t come anymore. It’s a fine line.”
The ability for Avila Beach to grow beyond where it is today is limited by its size, current infrastructure, and the willingness of local community members to welcome additional development and events.
Carol Dixon, a 12-year resident of San Luis Bay Estates, a residential community near the beach, doesn’t want to deny employees and business owners a means to make a living year-round. However, she wants officials and business owners to consider the impact on locals.
“We ask simply that the leaders in Avila Beach and the Avila Valley Advisory Council make sure that the large promotional events that are increasing in number be curtailed for reasons of traffic congestion and our limited access to the highway,” she said.
Based on 2006 traffic count data, Avila Beach Drive, between San Luis Bay Drive and San Luis Street, carried the largest two-way traffic volumes in the area, ranging from 8,800 vehicles per day during non-summer weekdays to more than 16,400 vehicles per day on holiday/summer weekends.
But in order to keep the town economically vibrant, business and property owners say attracting people to the area is vital.
In 2000, a plan that put forth redevelopment goals for the town called for a conference center, which could include lodging, in a natural setting with trails and open space at the former Unocal tank farm site on the bluffs above the beach.
Since then, other ideas have been generated that include a Chumash healing center, a regional park, conference center and wine center. However, many residents and community leaders believe the site should remain open space.
A concrete plan for the property has yet to be developed, according to owner Chevron Corp.
Despite its challenges, some business owners believe that Avila is on its way up.
Ray Peterman, co-owner of the Avila Grocery & Deli on Front Street with his wife, Cheryl, said business appears to be turning around. Cal Poly students and young parents provide steady business during the week. Families picnicking on the beach and older couples at hotels and vacation rentals bring business on the weekends.
“I’ve been in this business for over 40 years, and tourism is your gravy,’’ said Peterman. “But the locals are your bread and butter.”
The Petermans, who also own the Woodstone Marketplace in Avila Village, took over the Avila Grocery last year after the previous owners closed, citing the tough economy.
And while other businesses have closed as well, new ones continue to open.
Footseas, a retail store owned by Bill and Linda Price (owners of Hula Hut, Sea Barn and Beachcomber Bill’s) operates on Front Street. Other retail and office spaces at The Landing, with 14,000 square feet between San Francisco and San Miguel streets, are leased and awaiting tenants.
Spinelli’s vacation rental business is starting to bounce back. For the past two years, he’s counted on employees working the outages at Diablo Canyon to make up for a downturn in business.
“Up through January of this last year, it was dismal; it hurt,” he said. The summer looks better, with bookings up 35 percent in May and 25 percent in June. His average occupancy runs about 60 percent to 65 percent.
Noreen Martin, owner of the Avila Lighthouse Suites, said business has remained steady. In the winter months, occupancy ranges from 52 percent to 70 percent. In the peak season, occupancy has run as high as 80 percent to 90 percent.
Guests come from the Central Valley, Los Angeles or Bay Area, but “we also get a lot of locals using the Avila Lighthouse Suites as a staycation instead of taking a trip out of state,” Martin said.
The 54-suite hotel offers value-added amenities, she said — spa therapies, wedding packages and a conference room.
Mark Woolpert, owner of the Custom House restaurant, said Avila Beach has matured since the days when his parents, who met on the beach in 1942, would take him there to play.
Woolpert believes Avila has the potential to become a destination, similar to Carmel. He’s pushed the county to allow more dining capability on the promenade, and he’s catered to locals and hotel guests by offering a “step-right-up program,” which allows residents from Santa Maria to Paso Robles to call and reserve a table a half-hour before arriving.
As the economy gradually improves in the next few years, he predicts that more businesses will move in and that existing business owners will be able to survive all year long.
Until that happens, it’s important for business owners to prepare for the lean months.
“If you don’t sock it away during the summer time, you’re not going to make it,” he said.
Steve McGrath, manager of Port San Luis Harbor, said Avila Beach is a proud and engaged community, and is confident that it will only get better with time.
“The redevelopment of the town has breathed life into it,” he said. “The goal was of a town that is simultaneously a pleasure to live in and to visit. And it certainly is that now.”