As Atascadero continues to try to rebrand itself as a place to shop, candidates vying for the city’s top leadership roles in the Nov. 4 election have all committed to making the city more attractive to businesses.
Two candidates are gunning for the mayor’s seat in a race that pits incumbent Mayor Tom O’Malley against newcomer Charles Scovell, a certified arborist.
In the council race, incumbents Brian Sturtevant and Heather Moreno face off against Len Colamarino, an Atascadero planning commissioner and lawyer, and Chuck Ward, a former Atascadero planning commissioner and military veteran.
The candidates agree that the city needs more offerings for shopping and entertainment, but they have differing opinions on how to improve the current retail reality.
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The mayoral candidates
O’Malley has lived in Atascadero for 60 years, moving away a short while for college and a job. He runs a bed-and-breakfast with his wife, Peggy, and has served on the City Council since 2002. He was appointed as mayor through a rotating system in 2006 and 2011, and then ran unopposed to become the city’s first elected mayor in 2012. O’Malley has worked to build consensus on a once-antagonistic council by taking the reins to direct council discussions. He intends to focus on building infrastructure to support economic development downtown, as well as making improvements at Atascadero Lake Park and the Charles Paddock Zoo.
“We have begun a revisioning process regarding our community and how we want to appear, including design and signage and how we want to market and communicate that vision outside of our community,” he said. “This will be a challenging next step.”
Scovell, who owns a tree service business, is a lifetime resident of Atascadero. He studied political science at Cuesta College for the past two years to learn the skills to bring new leadership to his hometown, he said. His campaign calls for providing new activities for youths, finding funds to build a proposed pedestrian bridge across Atascadero Creek that would link Colony Square to Sunken Gardens, bringing community events to Stadium Park and filling shuttered storefronts.
“I chose to run for office after our last election’s lack of candidates and the declining economic health of our city,” he said. “San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles have come out of the same struggling economy and have left us far behind in community and business development. If we all work together, we can do so much better.”
The council candidates
Colamarino, an attorney, has lived in the city about a decade and has served on the Planning Commission since 2009. He intends to focus on growing the city’s business district and providing a moderate voice.
He pledges to “bring leadership and independent initiative to a City Council that now follows the city staff instead of leading it, and that is comprised entirely of individuals who are implementing the party line of the private political activists to whom they owe their positions,” he said. He also believes the political agendas of current council members create “an unfavorable image of the city of Atascadero, which adversely affects the city with its residents and in its ability to recruit sorely needed business development.”
Moreno has lived in Atascadero for about 10 years. She works as an accountant/controller for a technology company and owns a fitness business. She served on the Planning Commission from 2008 to 2010 and was appointed to the City Council in 2012 to fill a midterm council seat vacated by O’Malley when he was elected mayor. On the council, she has focused on building the local economy, saying that “it is the city’s job to help people start up and run their businesses by removing obstacles and providing guidance on relevant regulations.”
One example she gave is to reduce permit fees for certain business types the council would like to see downtown. Her campaign is based on continuing those efforts, listening to the public and promoting fiscal responsibility.
Sturtevant has served on the council since 2010 and is currently mayor pro tem, a rotating vice mayor position. Before that, he served on the Planning Commission from 2008 to 2010. He works as a mechanical maintenance supervisor at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
While on the council, Sturtevant has focused on improving the economy, including by approving new development in town. If re-elected, he says, he’ll work to strengthen existing businesses by simplifying regulations, put a priority on public safety and improve communication with the public.
“We are in a position for even greater success in the near future, but we must stay the course,” he said. “I will continue to work for Atascadero and bring people together so that we can find the common ground to make our city the best that it can be.”
Ward has lived in Atascadero for nine years. He served as a U.S. Marine from 1958 to 1964 and has volunteered in the community on veterans issues such as helping develop the city’s Veterans Memorial at Atascadero Lake Park and the American Heritage Monument at Colony Square. A retired chemical trading company managing director, Ward served on the Planning Commission from 2008 to 2012. He’s campaigning to also find funds to build the pedestrian bridge across the creek, finish the second and third phases of Colony Square and use his negotiation skills when considering development contracts.
Asked what inspired him to run for council, Ward said: “Seeing Colony Square 65 percent still a patch of brown dirt, the pedestrian bridge stalled, nothing but years of talk about the retail creekside development (for) shops and eating places and knowing that if I were on the City Council, I would make it priority one to get it done.”
Views on economic development
Atascadero has long struggled with not having enough places for residents to shop and go for entertainment. Part of the issue is the city’s layout, without a thriving downtown hub and with strip malls that line several miles of El Camino Real, the city’s busy four-lane main drag.
A consultant study issued as part of an environmental report for the proposed (and now approved) WalMart store estimated that Atascadero lost out on about $79 million in spending on everything from food and dining, apparel and general merchandise in fiscal year 2011-12 by Atascadero residents who shopped outside the city.
That translates into $790,000 in sales tax dollars that the city did not receive.
“Our business district is more than the downtown core; it is a 6-mile-long strip that offers products and services to people throughout the North County,” Moreno said. “We need to encourage residents to shop locally, educating them on the economic benefit to the city and, ultimately, to the citizens.”
Last year, the City Council pledged to keep economic development as a primary goal. The council has sought out new sales and hotel tax options, approved the construction of a hotel at the north end of town and allowed development of a separate downtown retail complex.
The council also said it would continue to focus on getting the Wal-Mart project built at Del Rio Road and El Camino Real and meeting with commercial brokers to bring in new business.
“Simply put, we need a more community-serving retail base,” Ward said.
Creating more walking connections downtown, developing the area around Atascadero Creek from the Lewis Bridge to El Camino Real “up to its full potential” and creating positive working relationships with key developers are among Ward’s ideas.
Colamarino said he also thinks finding willing developers to invest in the town is critical and is not currently done well.
“No member of the current council has taken up the cause of downtown development, much less prioritized it in the way it needs to be prioritized,” he said. “By all appearances, the City Council does not understand that concentrating businesses in a central business district allows different businesses to feed each other in a synergistic way.”
He pledges to seek out developers who have revitalized downtowns in other cities and offer packages of building incentives the city “can realistically afford.”
“That, I think, is the next step,” he said. “… and we will need to be ready to take additional steps to sustain development once it gets started.”
But O’Malley says the council has already worked on trying to draw developers.
“We have recently brought in top consultants; one to help with marketing to investors and one to help build consensus with all of our stakeholders in marketing our town,” he said.
Scovell would like the city to postpone fees on companies to “give businesses real incentives to come to town,” he said. “Attracting businesses will require the city to have a more cooperative attitude.”
Moreno says part of the problem is not enough marketing to encourage residents to shop local.
“As was identified at our visioning workshop last month, I support identifying a point person to be in charge and accountable for the overall efforts to promote Atascadero and educate residents and tourists as to what we have here,” she said.
Sturtevant agreed, saying he would work to attract new businesses through zoning changes, development incentives and creating a shop-local campaign.
Future of the Sunken Gardens
When asked whether they would support a zoning change from mixed use to just retail and dining around the city’s Sunken Gardens park, all the candidates seemed open to the idea, although wary of excluding existing businesses.
“The development around the Sunken Gardens will be in incremental steps,” Sturtevant said. “I would like to see a downtown hub, but not at the exclusion of the business community that is outside of the downtown.”
Many residents say the Sunken Gardens, a spacious city park downtown in front of Atascadero’s iconic City Administration Building, has the potential to become a downtown retail hub such as the Downtown City Park in Paso Robles. But businesses around the Sunken Gardens are mostly non-entertainment establishments such as real estate offices and dental practices.
Moreno said the challenge with creating shopping and dining opportunities is that the properties are owned by the businesses operating there.
“While I sympathize with the desire for a downtown hub, I cannot in good conscience force a zoning change on private property owners because it has the effect of eventually pushing them out of their current business,” she said.
She said she does support offering incentives — such as reduced permitting fees for conversion to restaurant uses — to encourage property owners around the park to invest in more mixed-use developments.