Recently the City Council heard from a concerned resident complaining about both the rising number of massage and tattoo parlors and thrift stores as well as the vacancies she she’s in her part of Ventura: “The portion of Main Street between Five Points and Loma Vista looks filthy and derelict. Empty buildings are everywhere. I think the residents of Ventura are entitled to know what’s going on and how the city plans to fill all of the empty building in this fair city. It would seem a logical assumption that if the buildings were filled, unemployment would drop, people might actually start wanting to live in Ventura again and revenue would increase, filling the city’s coffers.”
She’s undoubtedly not alone. Although Downtown, the Ventura Harbor and the Pacific View Mall have done remarkably well during the economic crisis, other parts of Ventura have not fared as well. Besides Midtown, Ventura’s eastern gateway along Johnson Drive, the spur of South Seaward near the beach and many other commercial areas are also struggling.
Can the success of Downtown be replicated in other commercial areas in Ventura? Yes, but it isn’t easy and government is only part of the answer.
It’s important to note two things right away. First, the vacancies we see in Ventura and other communities are more the product of the changing buying habits of Americans than local municipal policies. Second, since we are part of those changing buying habits, we can make a difference in where we shop.
The emerging retail shake up going on today is as big as the huge shift away from Downtown Main Streets to suburban strip centers and malls that happened in the years after World War II. Simply put, four powerful trends” have left us with too much retail space to fill: “the rise of online shopping and purchasing; slower sales growth overall because households will no longer able to tap home equity as a source of credit; declining population in the peak retail spending years; and logistical advances that favor home delivery and reduce the need for on-site storage” (cited in an excellent summary of the changing face in retail and how it affects cities in Planning Magazine.) The article also notes statistics from the Urban Land Institute that : “from 1960 to 2000, America experienced a 10-fold jump in retail space, which increased from four to 38 square feet the amount of shopping floor space for every man, woman, and child.”
As Stein’s Law tells us, things that can’t go on forever, don’t. The race to build new stores to keep up with Americans’ appetite for spending has slowed dramatically — along with the amount of money we are spending in stores. Across the river in Oxnard, the much-anticipated new Riverpark retail development was halted in 2009. The recession delayed hopes of filling the new 600,000 square foot proposed project. Today, only a Target is in business there, with work finally going forward to open a 16 theater cineplex in November, along with plans for a Whole Foods upscale market and REI sporting goods store in the spring of 2013.
Meanwhile, both national chains and local merchants are closing stores or in the case of many national retailers, cutting back on the size of their leased space. The kinds of empty spaces the concerned resident complains about are the hardest to fill. They aren’t in an enclosed air-conditioned mall nor a historic Downtown nor in a major new center next to a freeway off-ramp. All these locations have built-in auto or foot traffic. They aren’t built to modern retail configurations and sizes. Hence the growth in low-end uses like massage and tattoo parlors and thrift stores.
Which brings us to what we can do. Many brave retailers, service businesses and restaurants remain or are opening in these locations despite the challenges. Are we shopping there? Or are we taking our consumer dollars to big discounters, malls and on-line retailers? What can citizens do to bring our neglected commercial areas back to vibrant life?
Check out Totally Local VC for the profusion of great deals and unique businesses, the hidden gems that often die simply because they’ve been overlooked. Patronize old-line businesses that have been loyal to our neighborhoods and check out the new ones moving in. Our family loves McConnell’s Ice Cream, Napolito’s Nursery, Ventura Pet Barn, Unique Cleaners, Florentino’s Hair Designs, Bonano’s Peruvian Restaurant, Guitar Planet and many other local businesses. We recently checked out Prime Steakhouse for a fine family meal and a friend took me to Allison’s Country Cafe, which I hadn’t visited in a while. And today, I bought three plants at Villa Tasca, which has brightened up a desolate corner on Thompson at Catalina. We are anxiously looking forward to the re-opening of the Green Market on Main a couple of blocks from our home.
Of course local government plays an important role. The City Council has focused on creating a “Safe and Clean Ventura” as well as “Promoting Prosperity through Economic Development.” Zoning laws and how they are enforced matter. We’ve been working diligently, for example, to assist Cafe Nouveau get back in business after a devastating fire gutted their kitchen. So does parking. We’ve been working with Community Memorial Hospital to minimize construction disruption affecting nearby merchants as the new hospital complex comes out of the ground. So does routine maintenance. We recently partnered with the Pierpont Community Council on a day-long South Seaward clean-up that attracted 75 volunteers. Finally, there is no substitute for the kind of area management that Downtown, the Ventura Harbor and the Pacific View Mall provide. Of course, whether businesses are paying for those services through a “Property Owner Business Improvement District” fee as in Downtown or through their common area rental rates as at the Harbor and the Mall, joint marketing and maintenance is costly, even if the return on investment is a good one.
We can improve our local neighborhood commercial areas. But it takes a partnership of businesses, government, neighbors and customers. In these tough times, government can’t do it alone. Every day, where we spend our valuable consumer dollars is the surest and quickest way to ensure those dollars stay at home, improving our local community, providing jobs to our neighbors and ultimately revenue to support the vital services we all rely on.