Plan for game center renews debate over what businesses are best in downtown

MASTER OF THE GAME <br>Robert Feder, who hopes to turn the vacant storefront at 201 Main St. into an upscale entertainment center, had already spent $25,000 on the venture when he learned downtown business owners were protesting the non-retail use.

Robert Feder, who hopes to turn the vacant storefront at 201 Main St. into an upscale entertainment center, had already spent $25,000 on the venture when he learned downtown business owners were protesting the non-retail use.

photo by Tom Angel

Game plan: The way Dr. Robert Feder has it planned, there would be three levels of play at Mind Games. Two dollars would buy the right to spend one and one-half hours playing high-tech video games for $3 to $4 a game. For $5, players could stay for an hour longer and get the games at half-price. For $9, you’d be there four hours playing the games at no additional cost. Everyone would get a free soda.

Dr. Robert Feder thought his idea for an upscale video game center in downtown Chico would be a good thing for a town lacking in alcohol-free entertainment. But instead, the Chico dentist’s plan set him square against business owners who believe that the highly visible corner of Main and Second streets should remain dedicated to retail uses.

So far, most of Feder’s $200,000 vision is on paper, which he went over in the still-vacant storefront as pulled-apart boards sat amid about a dozen smooth, black, custom-made armchairs—$5,000 worth—that he ordered when he thought his plan was a done deal.

It would take $2, $5 or $9 to gain entry to Mind Games, which Feder is calling an “electronic entertainment and gaming center,” as opposed to the stereotype-laden “video arcade.” There’d be a snack bar with a jukebox over there, Feder said, gesturing toward the wall facing Second Street. And to the right of that, a mini-theater where DVDs would play continuously. There’d be a handful of coin-operated table games, like pool, foosball and air hockey, but the centerpiece of Mind Games would be PlayStation 2, Nintendo Cube and Microsoft X-Box, in “stations” centered on high-definition TVs as large as 61 inches.

But Feder’s plan was derailed Sept. 20 when the Chico Planning Commission voted 4-3 to approve an appeal of the use permit city staff had granted the business.

The following Monday, Feder filed an appeal of his own: He’s asking the City Council to reconsider the commission’s decision and let the game center go ahead.

“This was supposed be something real simple,” said Feder, sounding first perplexed and then frustrated. The city’s zoning officer quickly gave the stamp of approval, Feder said, and he expected nothing but smooth sailing and a September opening.

But the appeal, filed by Bob Malowney, who owns the Bird in Hand gift shop on Broadway, sent the application to the Planning Commission.

The business required a use permit because it fell under the category of indoor entertainment, which is regulated by the city.

Pam Figge, a senior planner for the city of Chico, said that while staff did believe it was appropriate to grant the use permit, with some conditions, “if we had our best use for the building, it would be retail, no doubt.”

The city commissioned a study in 1995 that found that downtown Chico was bar-heavy and retail uses should be encouraged.

Malowney said in an interview that downtown merchants don’t have the time or staff to further that cause, and aren’t professional planners anyway, so the city should be “more proactive” in seeing that vacancies go to retail, and in downtown planning in general.

Furthermore, he said, he has no problem with Feder’s business. Rather, it’s that Mind Games would take a storefront that could otherwise go to a retail use. “We need to preserve the retail space,” he said. “The fabric of our community depends on like businesses being together.”

Malowney said there has been an “erosion” of retail’s presence in the downtown. When Access Dental set up shop at the corner of Second and Broadway streets in 1999, Malowney complained too late. He told himself that the next time a use that didn’t further the downtown’s mission came up, he’d speak out. It happened to be Feder’s business.

“That’s one less attraction for daytime,” Malowney said of Mind Games’ potential use of the space. (It would be open from noon until midnight.) “Do we want downtown to be Vegas, where nobody wakes up before noon?”

While some downtowners, like the owner of Avanti! restaurant, spoke in favor of Mind Games, other merchants launched an opposition effort.

The owners of Zucchini & Vine and the Gabrielle Ferrar jewelry store wrote to the city with their concerns, which included juveniles loitering, bikes and skateboards scattered around, and factors that would work against retail businesses.

And Police Chief Mike Efford wrote a letter stating that Mind Games would bring “additional juveniles” downtown, increasing the potential for traffic, bicycle and curfew problems.

David Halimi, who owns the building in question, said at the meeting that he had had no luck finding a tenant for the 6,000-square-foot space, an assertion confirmed by Georgie Bellin, a Chico real estate agent. He had moved his Diamond W Western Wear business to make way for Off-Campus Books, which stopped paying rent several months before it closed this May.

Jolene Francis, who was among the planning commissioners voting against granting the use permit, said later that it was something she pointed out that helped the majority realize an entertainment center there would be a bad move. The use permit, if granted, would live on as the property went to different renters and owners who might not be as community-minded as Feder. “[We could have] literally a pool hall on one of our best retail corners in the downtown,” Francis said.

“Certainly, the owner of the building has the right to lease that property out,” she said, but city rules—including the discretionary nature of use permits—are there for a reason. “This is a very significant corner, and I have a strong belief that it should be a retail use.

“I think [Mind Games] would be a wonderful addition to the community, but not in that location,” she said.

Feder believes his plan has been misconstrued in a community where “video arcade” conjures up images of rowdy youths toting skateboards and making trouble.

The Planning Commission’s decision, he said, was “based on emotionalism and hysteria.” He’s confident that the City Council will see things differently and realize Mind Games would be positive for the downtown and completely within the scope of the General Plan.

No one would be loitering outside, he said, because they’d be paying so much to play inside. And he’s glad to cut off the underage set after 8:30 p.m. “I expect teenagers in here, but I don’t want them at night,” he said, believing they should be home with their families.

Also, he said, the business would end up encouraging retail shopping, as parents who would otherwise bring their children to the mall would drop them off at the heavily supervised Mind Games while they shopped downtown.

Feder said his idea for the center came “all out of my head.” He noticed how his 5-year-old son enjoyed battling PlayStation in front of the big TV at home. “It just dawned on me that this type of atmosphere where you have large TVs, not an arcade, would be something that would be great for Chico. It was really about bringing a non-alcohol, youth-oriented atmosphere to Chico—because it’s all bars.”

Feder called in focus groups of college students, who bolstered his confidence about the plan.

“It’s an amazing thing. It’s infectious,” he said of the games, which he feels “cross all boundaries” age and gender-wise. He wants couples to see Mind Games as a date spot, and expects an age range from the young to middle-aged.

Mind Games, he said, would allow patrons during their block of time to choose from dozens of popular games. “This is something you couldn’t possibly have at your house.”

Feder says he can’t help but think the well-connected Malowney and other downtown merchants are being elitist and unfair. He said many of those protesting are “high-end people who say we don’t want kids down here, and yet it’s the kids who support the community.”

If the City Council meeting—city staff expects it will be in mid-October—goes in his favor, Feder said he’d open Mind Games on Jan. 17.