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Santa Maria Sun / Commentary

The following article was posted on July 16th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 19 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 19

Blunder after blunder

In its Fallas decision, an out-of-touch Santa Maria City Council needs to embrace the downtown we actually have, not the fantasy they hope for

BY JOE PAYNE

My fiancée and I owned a business for nearly two years in Santa Maria’s Town Center West. It was a coffee shop a couple of doors down from Big 5 Sporting Goods. Every morning as the coffee brewed, we watched the sun rise over the Santa Maria Town Center and cast light on the monolith that was the empty Mervyn’s building, previously the biggest draw to the shopping center.

Luckily, our high-quality product and service were enough to ensure a regular clientele of coffee lovers, because we knew almost zero percent of our business came from foot traffic garnered by the shopping center. We got to know many of the owners of the local businesses in Town Center West—mostly sole proprietors, who all lamented the fact that the shopping center had no reliable source of local foot traffic like it did back in the Mervyn’s days.

We sold our shop in 2011 so we could return to school and earn our degrees, saying goodbye to the daily bustle of Town Center West. Since then, several wonderful, locally owned businesses have gone under. Sang’s Kitchen—the only place in town where you could get a good bowl of Pho—closed down first. Then it was J Whites Cigars and Tobacco, whose owner always frequented our coffee shop. And, finally, the Town Center Gallery couldn’t afford the pricey rent on its location because of the lack of regular customer turnout.

I leapt for joy when I first heard that the Mervyn’s building had been bought and that it would be the location of a store once again. I always thought no business was large enough to fill that space in this economy, that Santa Maria would be plagued with a “ghost mall.” I knew the new purchase alone would give heart to the local business owners there, that a new store—a draw for the shopping center—was a glimmer of hope under a dark economic shadow.

And then the Santa Maria City Council met in June. Even though National Stores Inc. bought the property, spent a small fortune renovating and beautifying it inside and out, and followed all of the necessary rules and regulations, the conservative faction of the City Council came down hard, claiming that the proposed business—a Fallas Discount Store—wasn’t a good fit for Santa Maria’s downtown.

I wasn’t alone in the shock and awe department. How in the world could Alice Patino, Bob Orach, and Willie Green possibly justify kicking out this ray of hope for a failing shopping center? Their claim is that the business isn’t up to the standard of the downtown specific plan.

Orach’s anecdotal accounts of his experiences at two California Fallas locations display the prejudice being played out here. He said that, of the two locations he visited, one was dirty and not acceptable, and therefore the business shouldn’t be considered for Santa Maria.

To me this seems like a drastic measure because there’s an easy solution to this problem: If the City Council is concerned about the overall cleanliness of the Santa Maria site, it should write upkeep requirements into the downtown specific plan.

As the late George Carlin put it, language always gives you away. One needs to look no farther than a statement Patino made at the June meeting to get some answers: “I don’t believe people will drive from 30 miles away,” she said in regard to the drawing power of a Fallas Discount Store.

Herein lies the crux of the council’s argument: Fallas must be rejected because it won’t draw people from surrounding areas to come shop in Santa Maria.

Well, guess what, Santa Maria City Council? If Santa Maria’s downtown isn’t a Central Coast shopping destination, you have only yourselves to blame! The Crossroads shopping center, with giant box store after giant box store right off U.S. Highway 101, is enough to destroy downtown retail. The large corporate businesses that dot the rest of the 101 ensure passers-through don’t have to journey farther than a quarter of a mile into town.

Countless Santa Marians know they have to leave town for high-end shopping in San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara’s downtowns.

Now, I don’t want to bash the Santa Maria Town Center—East or West. Many Santa Marians enjoy having a Sears, Macy’s, and Big 5 in one easily accessible area. The new owners of the mall have also been doing much to beautify and resurrect the location. The long-awaited—and oft city-delayed—project that is the giant Regal Movie Theater is sure to infuse the mall with some much-needed attractions.

But take a closer look at what the new owners of the mall have done to make it a draw. They’ve included many local businesses alongside the bigger corporate outlets. Newer attractions include a skate park, KT’s Gymnastics, and Kickers Sports Arena, which boasts a soccer field and batting cages. These improvements have done much to draw Santa Marians to the mall.

Unlike the mall’s owners, the City Council has lost sight of the most important part of planning and development: the customer.

Santa Marians are the people who will be shopping at Fallas, Mayor Patino, not people who live 30 miles away. People aren’t driving miles and miles to go to our mall; Santa Marians are the ones supporting it. Santa Maria is a city of more than 100,000 people, and it’s only going to keep growing. We are the largest city in Santa Barbara County, for crying out loud. Why are we looking anywhere else for business? Businesses like Fallas offer a point of attraction for a floundering shopping center like Town Center West.

Several of the City Council members who are trying to shut down Fallas have been serving the community longer than the median age of the population of the city. I, for one, don’t remember seeing Patino, Orach, or Green frequenting the shops at Town Center West—at least not our coffee shop. So how in the world could they possibly know what the shopping center needs or what the people of Santa Maria want?

The City Council needs to embrace the downtown that we actually have, not the long-dead fantasy they cling to.

 

Arts Editor Joe Payne doesn’t know what all the fuss is about. Contact him at jpayne@santamariasun.com.