I’ve known Mayor Tom O’Malley for 50 years.
He was in the first class I taught at Atascadero High. For a half-century, we’ve worked side by side on a number of projects. He shares my passion for Atascadero history and has many artifacts tucked in and around his home to prove it.
We haven’t agreed on everything. For the past 10 years, we’ve been on opposite sides of the Wal-Mart issue. He (with the rest of the City Council) felt the giant retailer would be good for Atascadero, especially the estimated half million bucks a year in sales tax revenue.
I, on the other hand, felt Wal-Mart would not be good for Atascadero and its small businesses, and that Wal-Mart was out of scale with this community. I also felt that Wal-Mart’s presence here would suck the life out of whatever was happening in the downtown.
This split has revealed itself since last week’s announcement that Wal-Mart has decided not to build here. I was delighted. O’Malley was disappointed. Many of my friends were equally divided over the news when I spoke with them.
“However, I do feel optimistic about Atascadero’s future,” O’Malley told me.
For more than 40 years, I’ve championed an intimate downtown composed of small-scale retail outlets such as restaurants, coffeehouses, bookstores and more.
There is a growing movement for that to happen right now. I agree with Tom Comar, long an opponent of Wal-Mart, that the retailer’s decision to not build here may have actually “saved Atascadero from itself.”
When I came to San Luis Obispo to attend Cal Poly in 1957, the creek running in front of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa looked like Atascadero Creek here — trash, old tires, shopping carts and more. I left to go into the U.S. Navy in 1962, and when I returned to San Luis Obispo four years later, the creek had been transformed into what we see today.
When I became a resident of Atascadero and learned that we also had a creek running through our downtown, I thought we could develop the same kind of atmosphere as our friends to the south.
Opponents of the idea have prevailed, with help from regulatory state agencies that make it a crime if you move even a broken limb from the creek bed.
But there is a renewed interest in making downtown Atascadero a vibrant shopping area from the theater to at least the police station. The city even has plans to build a pedestrian bridge across Atascadero Creek in the near future.
O’Malley has said that there is a renewed interest in what is happening in the downtown area. For example, I notice a miniature golf course being set up a block south of the police station.
There is already interest in the site owned by Wal-Mart, O’Malley said.
“The infamous roundabouts at the Del Rio-101 interchange do not have to be built at the city’s risk and expense,” said Len Colamarino, a former city planning commissioner.
Newly elected Councilman Charles Bourbeau said he was “disappointed” to hear of Wal-Mart’s decision not to build here, adding, “Wal-Mart represented an opportunity to attract other businesses to a large center, eliminate thousands of trips out of town and raise revenue to provide services.”
Colamarino suggested the site has “now been liberated for use as a tech center or another kind of industrial facility.”
I’ve never seen a better opportunity for Atascadero to focus on its historical retail center than now. Maybe the council can stop allowing professional and other nonretail uses in downtown buildings. And what better location in town for a creekside restaurant than exists in the former city hall?
Wal-Mart’s decision has indeed handed Atascadero’s downtown a second chance.