Members of the business community weigh in on the state of downtown Chico
What’s happened to downtown Chico? Hordes of homeless people wander the streets, their faces reflected in the windows of vacant storefronts. They hang out at City Plaza, in some cases scaring away shoppers.
Check out the vacancies on the south side of Third Street, between Wall and Main, where only one of the five storefronts houses a business. On the corner of Third and Main, the Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack sign still hangs on the building, but the restaurant has long been gone, as has the neighboring Gina Marie’s Italian restaurant. Stroll down the sidewalk toward Fourth Street, and see how the building that once housed the Towne Lounge and The Underground sits vacant behind a black chain-link fence designed to keep the transients from bedding down there.
A few steps away, the furniture and home décor store that occupied the first floor of the Grand View building at Third and Main is gone, as is the Fashion Lounge near Second and Main.
And as for the downtown parking situation …
Welcome to the Chico News & Review’s semi-regular look at the constantly changing face of downtown. The description above certainly sounds alarmist, but the fact is, while a number of prominent spaces are empty, the region remains a vibrant business sector. According to numbers released in April by the Downtown Chico Business Association, the estimated first-floor retail vacancy rate for downtown Chico is 7 percent, less than the estimate for city as a whole (9 percent) as well as that of the nation (11 percent).
Sales tax receipts are up 1.5 percent from the last quarter of the fiscal year and up 29 percent since they bottomed out in 2009. The city’s transient occupancy taxes—those charged by hotels and motels—are up 2.8 percent over a year ago. Two stores that vacated downtown last year, Betty’s on Broadway and Katie’s Corner, have been replaced with new tenants, a clothing store and consignment shop, respectively.
Other new businesses that have come downtown include Denine’s Cupcakes on Broadway between First and Second streets, the B Street Oyster Co. directly across the street, and Wanderful Media on Broadway between Third and Fourth.
To get a handle on what is going on downtown, we checked in with a number people who have an insider’s view, a vested interest, or both. Here’s what they had to say about downtown Chico, including the issues of homelessness, parking and business in general.
Melanie Bassett became executive director of the Downtown Chico Business Association in July of last year. The DCBA, as its name would indicate, serves to promote and encourage downtown retail. She formerly worked for Tri-Counties Bank and before that worked with nonprofit organizations.
“I love the downtown and that was the impetus for applying for this position,” she said in a recent interview. “It seemed like there was an opportunity to elevate this organization and what we are doing, and it was time to revitalize our downtown as well.”
While her job is to promote the area, the articulate Bassett comes across as genuine when expressing her views. She says she believes the downtown is in much better health than most people might think.
“We have what hovers around 450 businesses downtown,” she said. “There is a lot of discussion about what should be the balance. There are those who would like so see more retail, but we have these satellite tech companies calling and making inquiries about being downtown, rather than out at the airport.” (See a breakdown of business type on page 21.)
Those types of businesses include Wanderful Media. “They are there 24 hours a day with a younger population,” she said of the company.
Bassett explained that Wanderful, formerly named Travidia and located at the airport, has an app program called Storefront that guides its users to deals being offered in local stores. Another app called FindnSave encourages people to buy locally rather than online by telling customers in stores what is on sale within that particular business.
“They will also come out and help businesses set those connections up and so we are getting that message to our downtown merchants,” Bassett said.
A new restaurant called Crepeville is coming to town thanks to the owner of Burgers & Brew, she said. The new place will be located in the green wooden box of a building that sits at the southeast corner of Third and Broadway.
“It is such a cool spot and it will have outside dining,” she said. “Outside dining has helped a lot downtown. It’s something the city did by making some [zoning] allowances. Every time I turn the corner Tres Hombres is packed and that makes me happy. There is a lot going on down here.”
Bassett, like a number of others interviewed for this story, said the perceived downtown parking problem is greatly exaggerated.
“People don’t want to walk,” she said. “We are so spoiled here. It’s really going to take some education. But we have a great group working on it. We have good representation.”
Bassett noted the number of spaces will increase with the ongoing project of installing diagonal parking along Flume Street. She said she hopes to get diagonal parking on Broadway and Main as well, a project that would eliminate one of the three lanes that currently run along those streets.
Additionally, the City Council soon will be discussing the installation of so-called smart meters.
As for the homeless, she mentioned the R-Town Downtown Coalition that created the Downtown Ambassadors and the Jesus Center Cleanup Brigade, programs the DCBA took charge of six months ago. Those two groups welcome downtown patrons and keep the sidewalks clean.
When first launched last November, there was a third component made up of a private armed-security firm out of Yuba City that patrolled the downtown during the holidays.
“Sometimes when a crisis happens, good things come out of it,” Bassett said, referring to the downtown transient situation. “I think we are doing OK, but obviously there are people in the community who say, ‘I’m not coming downtown anymore.’”
She said she thinks the problem is not as ghastly as it’s been in the past.
“It’s not going to change overnight and we all have to be working together,” she said. “I think the biggest thing is trying to change the face of homelessness so that it isn’t a matter of ‘We just need to get rid of these people.’”
Bob Summerville is a senior planner who’s worked for the city since 1992 and has had an eye on the downtown for a pretty long stretch. Overall, he says, there has been an improvement in downtown storefronts.
“What I think has been a good shot in the arm are the outdoor dining patios, which we are seeing a lot of,” he said. “Our new code in the general plan encourages that. It started with Tres Hombres, Celestino’s [Pizza] was the second, and then Mom’s [Restaurant]. We’re going to see a fourth where Crepeville is going in. While they take away a parking space, they add to the charm.”
Summerville said there’s actually been a net gain in parking spots with the installation of the diagonal spaces along Flume.
As for the businesses downtown, he noted the increase in the number of consignment shops. “The second-hand stores were limited until we redid the zoning code last year,” he said. “Now, second-hand stores that are 2,500 square feet or less are permitted downtown in the north district.”
The north downtown district comprises the area that runs from First Street down to Fifth between Wall and Salem streets. Summerville said the south downtown, the area from Fifth to Ninth streets, is also seeing some resurgence.
“That is what the city wanted to see when we went through the general plan process,” he said. “From Café Coda and Lulu’s up to Nantucket, and over to the Winchester Goose and 1078 Gallery. Our new general plan has a downtown element: a dedicated chapter, which has some wonderful policies.”
Mid-block on the south side of Second Street, between Main and Broadway, is Brooklyn Bridge Bagel Works, owned by longtime downtown businessman Scott Schulman and partner Peter Horylev. Schulman’s first business in Chico was the Oy Vey Bagel Co., also in downtown. He opened that popular spot in 1979.
Schulman also purchased LaSalles Bar in the mid-1990s and began catering to a younger crowd than the one that had frequented the popular former fern bar for so long.
Problems facing the downtown—transients, homeless and parking—were all well-documented even at that time, he said.
“This is nothing new; it’s just a de-evolution,” he said. “You have better media coverage of it with the Internet and all, but I don’t think that much has changed. We had the same issues in the ’90s with Hey Juan’s across the street. You couldn’t get through on the sidewalks because of what some people would consider unsavory types. Right now, it’s better than it was last year.”
Parking has always been an issue downtown and probably always will be, he said.
“In years gone by there were concerted efforts to keep employees from parking in front of their place of business. We gave out coins to people to feed the meters. There have been various attempts to change the perception of downtown parking,” he said. “You park farther away at the mall. Parking downtown is not that tough. I do it all the time. It’s all perception and that [$29] ticket doesn’t help.”
What is the secret to success in running a downtown business?
“If I was successful I’d be on a beach in Rio de Janeiro,” he joked. “The secret is to know your clientele, provide good service and good product at a fair price. … I’ve been on this block for 34 years and I never get tired of the downtown. I look forward to my shifts. That is probably the biggest part of success—love what you are doing.”
If Schulman is an old-school Chico business owner, then Sebastian Tamarelle is of the new school. He and his business partner, Will Brady, recently opened the B Street Oyster Co. on Broadway next to Collier Hardware after extensive upgrades to the inside of the building. It is the duo’s second venture in downtown.
Seven years ago, they opened The Banshee on Second Street, in the spot formerly occupied by Stormy’s Off Broadway.
Tamarelle was born in Chico and raised here until he turned 14 and moved to Grass Valley. He received a scholarship to Brandeis University, which is just outside Boston, where he met Brady.
“Will caught wind that I was interested in moving back to my hometown and opening a bar,” Tamarelle said. “He Googled Chico and saw it was a cool spot and said, ‘Let me know if you do that.’ One thing led to another and eventually I brought Will out here.”
He said the two gutted Stormy’s to create a new bar.
“We spent every hour we had doing it,” he said.
Tamarelle said the success comes from filling a niche that was missing in the downtown—a nice bar with good food.
“When we first came to town with our idea, people told us we were crazy because Chico’s got a million bars,” he said. “We just took it to a different level where we do really good food with a bit of thought behind it. You pay a bit more, but now we have a good following with loyal, loyal customers.”
He said B Street, which opened in March, also fills a void.
“People are still finding us, and we are growing slowly,” he said.
The issues with the homeless and transient community do affect the bar, he said.
“There are always a couple of people parked out on the sidewalk or digging through the trash or just wandering back and forth and there doesn’t seem to be anything being done about it. We are at the point where we are trying to call the police once in a while to try to get them to scoot people along, but they don’t really care about it,” Tamarelle said.
Parking, he said, is not a problem.
“When I come downtown, I park three blocks away,” he said. “Chico is such a bike-friendly town and you can walk from just about anywhere to get here. So it really is not that bad. It is congested right downtown, but if you are willing to skip driving around the block for five minutes and just park and walk, you are there in the same amount of time.”
Downtown property owner David Halimi has lived in Chico since 1979 and sat on the DCBA executive board for more than a decade.
Halimi, who came to the U.S. from Iran in 1969 at the age of 16, owns several buildings, including the one that houses his business, Diamond W Western Wear on Second Street. He owns the old Chevy’s building that houses Burgers & Brew, Crush and Jamba Juice, as well as four other buildings housing Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Lyon Books, Wanderful Media and Pluto’s.
“I don’t have any vacancies right now and in the past when I did, it hasn’t been that difficult to lease them,” he said. “Sometimes you have to do a bit work to get it rentable, just like the whole refurbishment we did at the 325 Broadway for Wanderful.”
Halimi said vacancies often occur not because of a lack of interest but rather due to a failure of the property owner to make the place suitable for a potential renter.
“I think the perfect example is the old Chevy’s building,” he said. “It sat vacant for five years and then, once I got involved, it took a couple of years to get it full. Not because it was a bad location—it was a prime location in Chico, but it was too big for the type of tenants who tend to come downtown. They tend to be small mom-and-pop-type businesses and so the solution was to separate the two spaces, the upstairs and downstairs. It took understanding what the problem was and solving it.”
He said working with the city is for the most part positive and fruitful.
“I think the city really does work very hard to get things done with property owners,” he said. “And I understand that they have certain limitations and regulations that they have to abide by. My experience with them in that regard has been great.”
Like others with downtown investments, Halimi also says parking is not a problem. He said, however, that the homeless issue does have a negative affect on business.
“I think that it does discourage and distract some shoppers,” he said. “Particularly the older ones; they feel uncomfortable coming downtown. So having more police presence would be good, but I certainly understand the limitations there.”
Halimi helped start the R-Town Downtown Coalition with the private security force. He said he’s glad the ambassadors and clean-up components of the program are still active.
“The next step is to bring back the private security,” he said. “I think that will give people a certain comfort level to come downtown. The city police presence downtown would be the first choice, but you don’t always get your first choice. They have their own challenges.”
Budd Schwab, owner of Campus Bicycles, is just beginning his third term as president of the DCBA’s board of directors. He’s had a bike shop downtown for the past 32 years, having moved to his current spot at Fourth and Main a dozen years ago.
Schwab, who is married to Chico City Councilwoman Ann Schwab, pulls no punches when talking about downtown’s problems. His shop is just across the street from City Plaza, where many homeless people and transients hang out.
“We have a $4.2 million plaza that we don’t use,” he said in a recent interview at the plaza. “There is a safety issue involved, there’s a cleanliness issue. I’ve been involved in the Clean and Safe movement since it began. We have people from the Torres Shelter, people from the Jesus Center, Behavioral Health, the 6th Street Drop-In Center and the DCBA. I’m proud to be part of that, but we just don’t know what we can really do.”
He said the recently passed sit/lie ordinance is unenforceable because of a short-handed police department. The law says—with the exception of babies in strollers, those using wheelchairs and those who are having a medical emergency—no one shall sit or lie on a downtown sidewalk.
“We have a liberal City Council, a very wealthy student body and a micro police department,” Schwab said.
He acknowledged that the homeless community includes people with drug-addiction and mental-health issues and even those who’ve lost their mortgage.
“But there is this middle group, and I would guess it’s 50 percent for which it’s a lifestyle choice,” he said. “I don’t get panhandled, but I hear it is still going on. I don’t know if they see it in me and just don’t approach me, but it’s just the general population that’s not good for downtown retail.”
He said the downtown needs to be more vibrant and generate more sales tax revenue to hire more police officers.
“I’m seeing the quality of the storefronts so people are putting a lot of energy into it,” he said. “The ingredients are there for a really great downtown, but I don’t know what the solution is with this transient situation.”
For her part, Bassett from the DCBA remains optimistic about the city’s future.
“The DCBA and the Chamber of Commerce are working together,” she said, referring to a relationship that has had a bit of a rocky past. “We are working on getting public safety to where it needs to be. In the meantime, the [Downtown] Ambassadors are doing a great job.
“We are doing OK on vacancies. It was somewhat surprising to learn that sales tax revenue was up. Our downtown is our jewel in Chico, so we have to take care of it.”