Unfortunately, the city of San Luis Obispo has no single agency to promote business development in the downtown core.
The city’s Promotional Coordinating Committee’s primary goal is to develop San Luis Obispo “as a regional and tourist center.” The Chamber’s mission statement addresses the benefits of “networking.” The Downtown Association raises revenues to support downtown events. The Downtown Association is not adequately funded by the city to address retail health or diversity. The city’s Five Year Economic Development Strategic Plan (approved Aug. 7, 2012) gives lip service to encouraging downtown “resident-serving businesses without limiting the ability of building owners to choose tenants.” However, the plan’s primary focus is on the development of more office parks in the city’s expansion areas.
What is the solution to all of this? Reinstate a city-sponsored contract to promote downtown shopping and business development.
In 2009, Save Our Downtown organized a well-attended Downtown Small Business Visionary Workshop. Then in 2013 we formed a Downtown Merchant Subcommittee. The workshop findings were as follows:
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Key small business problems included:
▪ Lack of business loans
▪ Retail spaces are not easily sub-dividable
▪ Consensus among diverse stakeholders is hard to achieve
▪ Side street businesses get too little exposure
▪ The city doesn’t provide local merchants with enough lead time for street closures
▪ The city is slow to allow small restaurants to place tables or chairs along the sidewalk
▪ Downtown SLO has become too student oriented
▪ The unique feel of our downtown is slipping away
Key solutions that will result in the success of small businesses in the downtown core were identified as follows:
▪ Provide kiosks within the parking garages that would advertise and describe the location of downtown shops (particularly side-street shops)
▪ Encourage businesses having difficulty paying their rents to move to the less expensive side-street locations
▪ Encourage the city to provide start-up businesses with six-month front-end cost waivers
▪ Encourage the small business owner to “steal” ideas from the national chain stores
▪ Small business owners should endeavor to uniquely link their stores to the unique history of downtown
▪ There should be a system of “magnets” drawing visitors to walk past small downtown shops (i.e. anchor stores and major art installations)
▪ Widen sidewalks (i.e., make Higuera a two-lane street without parking)
Our Downtown Merchant Subcommittee discovered that local start-up businesses would be more willing to locate downtown if the city promoted special free-parking shopping days, reduced parking penalties and kept credit card time limits open-ended as the current parking situation is a major deterrent to local residents shopping downtown.
Back in 2013, the Downtown Association sent out an online survey and organized a town hall meeting that focused on a top concern related to the growing number of corporate stores replacing local-owned businesses and more restaurants and bars than retail shops.
The “most active idea” on the Mindmixer Online Community Workshop Update was to “increase the retail mix in downtown.”
That can only happen after the city has successfully stemmed the proliferation of bars, restaurants and nightclubs in our downtown core (which can happen should the city decide to finally implement an over-concentration law as part of the Land Use and Circulation Element action plan titled “Alcohol Concentration Evaluation and Adoption of Code Amendments”) and after the city has established a more proactive stance in supporting the small, independent retail business owner.
Besides reinstating a city-sponsored contract to promote downtown shopping and business development, we discovered two other ways to address downtown’s growing monoculture of corporate stores, restaurants and bars.
One is to follow Oakland’s lead by emulating “Popuphood,” a retail incubator. Popuphood is an award-winning social enterprise rethinking retail and its role as a strategic tool. It works with real estate developers and municipalities to incubate independent retailers with pop-ups to activate vacant spaces. One of their successes was to encourage Oakland to provide start-up businesses with six-month front-end cost waivers. It also convinced the building owners to provide retail spaces that are easily sub-dividable.
The second solution may be to follow what was accomplished in Port Townsend, Washington. There, a citizen-led initiative created a cooperative called Quimper Mercantile Co. after the demise of their only “general store.” After a number of years, this store is thriving (along with its shareholders).
We need a downtown that attracts all the residents within the community, not just the college-age students and out-of-town visitors.
These customers will need necessity goods: grocery stores, hardware stores, department stores and variety stores.
Locally owned retail brings more revenue into the community, provides customers with unique (and, importantly, not to be found online) locally sourced goods and services and provides customers with expertise and knowledge on the products and services they provide.
Allan Cooper is a retired Cal Poly architecture professor and registered architect, a former San Luis Obispo planning commissioner and the secretary of Save Our Downtown.