Path to revival
Miner’s Alley could be a destination, but first it needs a facelift
Whether he’s inking a tattoo or designing a craft beer label, Steve Vandervort is an artist who recognizes the value of aesthetics.
He’s co-owner of Miners Alley Brewing Co. in downtown Oroville. Last summer, he turned a sketchy bus turnaround area next to his restaurant into a space called Union Square, complete with a pavilion, outdoor dining area and stage for performers.
“People were doing drug deals and sleeping on the corner, but as soon as you start occupying space … you create a different atmosphere,” he said. It helps to create something visually appealing: “Those places where there’s art, music, horticulture … that kind of stuff attracts people.”
That’s the idea. Vandervort and his fiancée and business partner, Connie Parks, opened the brewery in 2014 and are contributing to the positive energy in the heart of the City of Gold. He’s hoping their investment will encourage other entrepreneurs to follow suit; it would take three or four good restaurants to turn the district into a destination, he speculated, and then retail stores might follow.
“More and more people have their eyes open and see something’s happening in Oroville,” he said, “but we can’t get anything done if the community doesn’t support what we’re doing.”
There’s a movement in the downtown business community to beautify the brewery’s namesake—Miners Alley, a six-block cross-section of downtown that runs behind historic red-brick storefronts. Once a bustling, Gold Rush-era thoroughfare with back entrances to the hotels and saloons lining Montgomery Street, the alley has decayed over the decades and become blighted and uninviting to pedestrians.
Claudia Stuart, a land-use planner with Butte County, believes there’s unlocked potential in the alleyway. In June, Chico State students taking her Geography 428 Site Planning class went before the Oroville City Council and presented a study on how to jump-start an economic revival called the Oroville Alley Revitalization Program.
“Our study talked about making the area more now-friendly,” she said. “In the past, the city has focused on its gold mining history, and we tried to find ways to expand that to reflect the diverse city of today. Oroville has historic authenticity, but the students tried to identify ways to create that destination ambiance.”
In collaboration with city staff, the students took cues from major cities—such as San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago—that have revived forgotten alleyways and turned them into arterial components of arts and restaurant districts. The vision for Miners Alley includes a walking loop around several historic buildings with murals, outdoor dining, hanging lighting installations, retail booths and food trucks, and stamped, patterned or cobbled pavement.
Some practical hurdles remain unresolved, Stuart said. For instance: “How do you provide outdoor activities that are exciting and enjoyable in a compressed space? We tried to feature an array of options in the document we created, from temporary art installations to permanent retrofits.”
After the students brought forward their proposal, the City Council directed staff to move it forward. The city has earmarked $50,000 for the project—which is still in preliminary planning stages—and the Planning Department is seeking further grant funding, said Dawn Nevers, an assistant planner with the city.
Vandervort, for one, says it’s a solid concept. “I think it would be a great attraction that would affect all of the businesses that touch the alley,” he said. “It was encouraging to see the [Chico State students] take it on as a project they’re interested in. It helps validate the idea.”
Parks and Vandervort never thought they’d open a brewery together. She is a restaurateur who owns Papacito’s Mexican Grill & Cantina on Oro Dam Boulevard. He owns Voodoo Tattoo, which relocated downtown in 2015.
The couple originally intended the venture to be a tattoo parlor/cafe. “We’d marry the two businesses and have the world’s best waiting room—a cool cafe,” Vandervort said. “At the time, we thought that Mug Shots, the cafe across Montgomery Street, was going out of business. The original name was Voodoo Tattoo and Brew—coffee, not beer.” Mug Shots Coffee House changed owners and stayed open, however. “We didn’t want to compete with them,” he continued. “They’re good people. So, we opened a brewery.”
Parks oversees the front-of-house operations and Vandervort is the brewmaster. He’s created 10 beer recipes, seven of which have been served on taps in the brewery. The biggest hits are the Black Bart Chocolate Porter, Crazy Ass IPA and O’ Dam Wheat Citrus.
“We’re proud of all of them because we’re making beer and people are drinking it,” he said. “That’s a cool thing in itself.”
They’re also proud to do business in their hometown, though they share nostalgia for the bustling downtown of their childhoods. “It’s not the same now,” Vandervort said. “It’s needed good people to revitalize it, and that is what’s happening. It really is a gem waiting to be polished.”