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A Thriving Downtown Santa Cruz

tom_honig_sWhen I was in grade school, my classmates came up with a game that we turned into a writing assigment: “The good news is ... (fill in the blank) and the bad news is .... (fill in the blank).” And it would go on like that for, oh, 500 words or so.

That seems a good model to follow when writing about Downtown Santa Cruz. Because the bad news is that a number of stores are closing or have closed on Pacific Avenue: the Vault, Borders, Velvet Underground, Bugaboo.

But the good news is that times are changing. Changing times mean new opportunities, and already there are a few new faces showing up along the avenue: Betty Burgers’ sit-down restaurant, Legs, Verve and Stripe.

 

But there’s more bad news (don’t worry, I’ll stop this before it gets any more repetitious). The latest figures prepared for the city show that retail “leakage”—a term that means people are going out of town to shop—is a big problem in Downtown Santa Cruz.

Here’s what leakage means. If you want to buy a men’s suit (OK, not a big item in Santa Cruz, but still...), you can’t buy one in Downtown Santa Cruz. Same with a hammer. Or an oven. So you drive out of town and go elsewhere.

Think about the implications. First, you’ve got sales tax dollars going to jurisdictions other than Santa Cruz. Second, you’ve got people leaving town in their carbon-spewing cars to shop for basic needs. Third, you’re not providing jobs for Santa Cruzans. Fourth, you’re leaving downtown to people other than shoppers—meaning that local folks are not coming downtown.

What’s to be done? Plenty. The City of Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce have hired a retail consultant by the name of Bob Gibbs. A resident of Birmingham, Mich., Gibbs knows a thing or two about the retail industry. And he sees some real opportunity for Santa Cruz’s downtown core. “Santa Cruz has a very strong market that will appeal to a lot of retailers,” he said at a recent Chamber of Commerce meeting.

Some of his recommendations will be easy to adopt. He said, for example, that traffic patterns downtown are confusing. That can be changed. Signs pointing to downtown are nearly invisible. Unless you already know where you’re going, parking is a challenge.

Gibbs also pointed out a kind of local’s joke: that most visitors think that Ocean Street is actually Santa Cruz’s downtown. And many, many visitors know Santa Cruz only as Ocean Street and the beach. There must be ways to improve direction signs and even traffic flow to encourage visitors to find their way to Pacific Avenue.

But there’s a bigger challenge in Santa Cruz, and it’s one that many of us who live here understand: the character of downtown.

Over the past 40 years that I’ve been here, there’s been an anti-chain store philosophy about Pacific Avenue. That philosophy is being challenged by economic realities—you need a mix of locally-owned and national retailers.

I’ve heard local people say, “We don’t want chain stores here because that would make us like other towns.” Well, maybe that’s true, but the reason that other towns have chain stores is that people actually like to shop there. And it’s not a zero-sum game: a locally owned store with a national chain nearby may actually end up with more foot-traffic.There are those, locally, who have realized that certain chain stores might be important. The City of Santa Cruz Economic Development and Redevelopment Department works mostly behind the scenes in trying to attract new business to Santa Cruz. Some city officials get a wistful look in their eyes when you mention, say, an Apple  store or an Anthropologie store. Or even an REI.

There are those who might not be comfortable with an infusion of “outsiders” downtown. It’s time for them to get over it. Even a number of local retailers privately say that they could use more national stores nearby as a way to attract more foot traffic.

So, to get back to the original premise, the bad news is that stores are closing. The good news is that opportunity abounds. And that change is coming. And change is not to be feared. It’s what keeps any downtown alive and thriving.


Read Tom Honig’s online newsletter, the Santa Cruz Observer, available at tomhonig.com
Comments (5)Add Comment
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written by a guest, May 29, 2012
Just returned from the Apple Store (20 miles each way), and when asked why they don't have a Santa Cruz store, replied that they wanted to move into the old Borders space, but the city turned them down. Hmmmmmmm
...
written by Kathy Cheer, November 17, 2011
By the bye, Stripe has been here for several years now; who needs Legs when there's the SockShop? How many overpriced socks does Santa Cruz need anyways?
...
written by Kathy Cheer, November 17, 2011
I 'd like to know more about Mr. Gibbs' background. I know Birmingham, MI; it's a mostly white, 1% professionals, squeaky clean suburban city to Detroit, similar to Las Gatos or Saratoga, safe from downtown Detroit gasping its death rattle. What were his successes and why, for heaven sakes, did SC Chamber go so far away for advice? Could have hired someone locally, put someone in California to work.
...
written by Downtown Business Owner, May 24, 2011
As a small business owner in Downtown Santa Cruz I found this article to be ridiculous. It has been festering in my head since I read it. Not once in the article did Mr. Honig mention the drug problem, homelessness/loitering and crime. If I had a dollar for every drug deal I saw near my shop it would pay my rent. Tourists and customers are harassed daily near my shop and others just will simply not travel down to the end of the mall out of fear. This is what is affecting small businesses.
A woman came into my store just today and asked if my shop was new. I replied that I had been here a year. She said, "I guess I never travel down to this end of the mall." Small business owners also can't move up the mall, for the rents are exorbitant.
The City of Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce hired a retail consultant. How much did that cost? Could they not of put that money towards the lack of signage downtown to point people to the shopping district. Any moron in front of my shop could have told you that Santa Cruz lacks good signage. Also, what happened to the money to revitalize the mall to Laurel? They stopped at the Jazz Alley?! The City needs to clean up their downtown all the way to the beach. I also wish I had a dollar for every time I was asked where the beach is located!
A Sustainable Thriving Santa Cruz
written by John W, May 05, 2011
I say it's time for Tom Honig to get over his bourgeois capitalist vision of downtown Santa Cruz. Tourists and chain stores are not what keeps a town alive and thriving. Santa Cruz would do best to encourage a more self sufficient economy than to aspire to be the shopping capital of the coast. Perhaps if we were not inundated with cheap goods made over seas and sold at big box retailers there would be more jobs producing essential goods within Santa Cruz. Picture buying shoes from the person who made them in Santa Cruz. Sounds better than a box store selling Chinese factory goods. What about growing our own food in Santa Cruz county? I mean more than just strawberries and artichokes. The average diet is based on grains and legumes, of which we grow essentially none in Santa Cruz.
In short what if Santa Cruz relied less on imports rather than trying to become a really good place to buy imports. There is a way to do this and it is to keep cheap imports out of the county and support local farmers and craftspeople. Perhaps we could even tax imported goods and use the money to subsidize local production.
The bad news is that Ipods, Bourgie clothes sold at Anthropology, and unnecessary "outdoor" toys would cost more
The good news is that the fossil fuel economy will collapse and the era of cheap imports that rely on exploiting laborers, farmers, and the planet will end.
Good riddance. Now let's go about building a sustainable thriving Santa Cruz.

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