Opinion Columns & Blogs

A fascinating vision for the South County

There are two ways to look at Grand Avenue in the South County.

You could view it as it is: a 4-mile de facto strip mall that stretches from The Village in Arroyo Grande to the Pacific Ocean, a Central Coast incarnation of those streets that run through the San Fernando Valley, with auto supply depots, supermarkets and the occasional small shop that has a tough time staying in business.

Or, you could see it as Samantha McTighe sees it: She looks at Grand Avenue and envisions what could be.

Call her vision The Village to The Sea.

McTighe views Grand Avenue as a possible vital main artery of what could be the Grover Beach of the future, a town that attracts a variety of tourists of every stripe from all over and that could revitalize the entire area.

The centerpiece of McTighe’s vision is a streetcar from The Village to the train station where Grand Avenue meets Highway 1, a long block from the Pacific.

Lining the street would be sidewalk cafes and other pedestrian-friendly shops, the kind that attract foot traffic, not gas guzzlers passing through.

“A street-car system down Grand would be usable by people of all ages,” McTighe wrote in a letter describing the changes she’d like to see, “providing transportation to schools, the library and every conceivable business and restaurant along the line.”

“(From the) village, they could easily transfer to buses that could take them out to Lake Lopez for the day, or (Highway) 227. Speaking of the 227, why not install tracks through Price Canyon, linking the coast to SLO, the Amtrak station in SLO and the airport to Pismo?

“Connect the dots … and suddenly we’ve got the makings of a green community, and a way to transition off gasoline. We might even become a model community,” she wrote.

McTighe said if South County leaders begin to look forward, not only Grover Beach but also Oceano and Arroyo Grande could become economically healthy.

“The village of Arroyo Grande, a short drag full of charm and history, would be bustling with tourism and local traffic in any other part of California,” she wrote. “Yet it, too, goes begging.”

I know what you’re thinking: This is pie-in-the-sky stuff. It would cost a fortune, take tremendous political will and change the status quo in the South County. It’ll never happen.

If it does happen, it sure won’t happen fast. But from where I sit, there’s nothing wrong with whimsy. And nothing good ever came to pass without vision.

While idealistic, McTighe also is a realist. She knows that for things to change, the community and its power brokers must see beyond an economy that is centered on motor vehicles at the Oceano Dunes. She knows she is suggesting a cultural change that frightens many people in the South County.

But the status quo is actually hurting South County’s future, McTighe said. “This area is at odds with itself.”

McTighe described “Traffic … dominated by caravans … zooming toward the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.”

“They might stop at a gas station or liquor store, but many of these campers bring in their own grub and are focused on sand activities, not shopping in Grover’s downtown.

“The noisiness of the street precludes the kind of ambience seen in downtowns where people eat at outdoor cafes. And the lack of continuity of storefronts prevents people from getting out of their cars and strolling for blocks at a time, as they do in SLO. Stores with parking lots in front aren’t all that inviting to foot traffic,” she wrote.

“Grover is a mishmash of old and new storefronts, and businesses struggle to keep their doors open,” she writes. “The town pretty much rolls up its awnings after 6 p.m.”

“We can’t just keep relying on the way things used to be,” she said.

McTighe has a broader vision for the county as a whole, spreading outward from her re-imagined the South County. It’s too expansive to recount here, but it involves, among other things, ideas for financing and heavy involvement from creative students at Cal Poly.

“We’re a college town full of bright young people brimming with intelligence and creativity. Why not give them a stake and have them co-create our future?” she wrote.

Again, McTighe knows how wild her ideas seem.

“Even if it seems nutso,” she wrote me in an e-mail, “I’m always hopeful that if enough seeds get planted, sooner or later one of them will grow.

“I’m putting this out there in the hope that it will get some of you to think about the possibilities.”

Are there any takers?