State of downtown San Luis Obispo seen as strong

Downtown San Luis Obispo is moving in a positive direction after several years of economic uncertainty.

“Businesses are strong,” Downtown Association President Dominic Tartaglia said Wednesday at the association’s first State of the Downtown breakfast.

“We have seen some notable businesses and restaurants go away, but we have new businesses and restaurants doing just as well. The face of downtown has changed. It is evolving into a place where people can shop, live and find entertainment.”

Businesses have been “revisiting their business model and adapting to the needs and wants of the customer,” Executive Director Deborah Cash said, noting that many have increased store hours and online availability and have improved customer service.

Sales tax revenues have gone up as well, increasing nearly 9 percent from fourth quarter 2010 to fourth quarter last year. The downtown vacancy rate is “lower than what many other communities are experiencing,” Cash said.

The Downtown Association’s goal is to “create a favorable business environment,” and it is addressing key challenges facing business owners. Top concerns include the transient population, parking and reducing alcohol-related disturbances in the evening.

During the past year, the association took several steps to improve the experience for downtown guests. Among them: permanently lighting trees to provide a brighter, softer look; installing new parking meters that accept cash and credit cards; and supporting the Safe Night Life committee’s efforts to reduce alcohol-related incidents. The committee is comprised of bar and business owners who hold licenses to sell alcohol.

Downtown continues to attract entrepreneurs and tourists, who see it as a destination. Capital investment in downtown projects also has returned, Cash said.

The Chinatown, Garden Street Terraces and Marsh Street Commons projects are on track, and the renovation of the Granada Hotel building on Morro Street is well under way. A total of 103 residential units, 150 hotel rooms and 150,000 square feet of retail space are expected to be added to the mix.

Cash, who moved to the city in 1974, said downtown San Luis Obispo has experienced a “renaissance beyond what anyone could have ever bet on.” In its 40-year history, Cash said the association has built on the foundation of what makes downtown “one of the best anywhere.”

“(Former Councilman) Ken Schwartz used to call the success of downtown SLO a ‘happy accident,’ and I concur,” Cash said. “We have natural beauty, interesting history, a close community and a bit of isolation from the rest of the world. So as a result, we are fascinating, unique, mysterious big reasons why people want to visit and live here.”