Ode to Joy

Joy Cohan has run the Davis Downtown Business Association since June.

Joy Cohan has run the Davis Downtown Business Association since June.

SN&R Photo By Ken Widmann

No man is an island, but landlocked Davis—a city that is a country unto itself, a state of mind more than a place—certainly is. Or at least that’s what this column argues.

Downtown Davis in some respects seems like an ideal environment for a small business. In a world of faceless shopping centers and manufactured “destination” downtowns, it remains a viable hub, where people actually go to purchase needed goods, not just dinner and a movie. But to many downtown business owners, the narrow approval of a Target store by Davis voters in 2006 has gravely threatened the status quo. In response, the Davis Downtown Business Association was reorganized and its staff was let go last June. Joy Cohan was hired to run a streamlined DDBA, from a similar position she had held in Woodland. I met her recently in her rather generic office suite tucked away off of F Street. (Locating it was a bit of a challenge; it’s easy to see why the DDBA is moving into high-visibility digs adjacent to the Amtrak station soon.)

Engaging and upbeat (her cell-phone ringtone is “Ode to Joy,” and it doesn’t come off as conceited), Cohan trumpeted upcoming downtown enhancements—e.g., the Friday night live music series in E Street Plaza will now run all summer long, and the fabled downtown Wi-Fi might actually be up and running someday soon—and also discussed the differences between Woodland and Davis, and the big-box-store effect on both cities.

Interestingly enough, the Woodland association’s fees have been paid by Wal-Mart and Home Depot, as part of the deals that brought those stores to the outskirts of town. By contrast, Davis’ DDBA fund streams from a mandatory assessment levied on all businesses within its core business area. So, have the small-business owners that make up Davis’ vibrant downtown largely made peace with the Target’s pending arrival, or are they terrified that the store is scheduled to break ground by the freeway this year?

“I wouldn’t say terrified,” Cohan says, “but they have their eye on it; they’re concerned. They want to continue to position downtown Davis as a unique and extraordinary place to get what you need … and that there’s attributes here in downtown Davis that Target will never be able to provide.”

The coming of Target to Davis reminds Cohan, in some ways, of Wal-Mart’s arrival in Woodland a year ago. While the effect can be devastating indeed for downtowns, in some respects “Wal-Mart is killing me” can become a convenient excuse for business owners with other problems. Says Cohan, “There was a feeling among some business owners that Wal-Mart was at the heart of every woe they ever had. In some cases it became pretty clear to me after a while that they had had those same woes before Wal-Mart; a Wal-Mart really wasn’t the issue. That’s not to say that I think Wal-Mart is a great thing for downtowns—not at all—but sometimes there has to be a separating out of what problems are caused by the big-box store down the road and what problems are just your business practices.”

Of course, Wal-Mart’s arrival was clearly a net loss for Woodland, according to Cohan. “There’s the character of the town that was lost; it’s not lost or gone forever but chipped away. When you drive Interstate 5 … what you see is a bunch of warehouse-y kind of things … and although that downtown is not all that [Davis] is, just the same there’s some great restaurants, there’s some charm, there’s some ambience … and you would miss all that because it just looks like another Vacaville or Folsom driving through.

“But Davis, I think, doesn’t want people on Interstate 80 to think it’s just another Target town. And to not come off the freeway and to not go under the underpass and see this village really, this quirky cool extraordinary village where you’ve got the university crowd meeting the crowd going off to the Mondavi—how cool is that? And I think there’s a fear that that will be lost if people just drive by and see the Target, and who knows what else that might spawn?”