Discovering What Matters
Q. Why are there so many stores downtown that are empty? There are other towns like San Luis Obispo and Palm Springs that have made successful efforts. Why isn’t Santa Barbara doing more? – Mathew in Montecito
Clearly, there are problems with downtown retail struggling all over the country as online purchasing grows and consumer needs shift. However, Mathew, to answer your question I went to a person who is personally and professionally connected to this issue and is putting in great efforts toward addressing the problems.
I met with Amy Cooper, who owns Plum Goods on State Street, as she has been party to many of the efforts to improve the vitality of our commercial sector. Amy is a very bright, attractive redhead who has lived in Santa Barbara for 25 years and raised her 18-year-old daughter here. She is charming and articulate, with experience in brand management, corporate communications and marketing, among her many skills.
Prior to coming to Santa Barbara, she lived in San Francisco where she worked in public relations, political campaigns, and communications. She graduated from Mills College then worked for various companies, with her last assignment at Charles Schwab where she ran an award-winning campaign to communicate to employees the vision, values, and priorities of the company. After moving here, she became a freelance writer assisting both local and national companies, eventually taking a job as a brand manager for Toad & Co before deciding to pursue her dream of having her own business and opening Plum Goods in 2010.
Plum Goods sells handmade, U.S. made and fair-trade items, with many from recycled and sustainable goods. “We offer beautiful goods that are better for people and the planet and an experience that keeps people coming back,” she says. She has clearly succeeded, both with locals and visitors, as her store has been voted Best Gift Shop in town for eight years in a row. She won Business Champion of the year in 2016 and serves on the Executive Committee of the Downtown Organization, along with several other groups working to improve our town. Most recently she was hired to design and bring to life the new Santa Barbara Visitor Center at 120 State Street. With her background in marketing, merchandising, brand management, politics, and city government, she has the drive and talent to really aid the economics of our city. I was sincerely impressed that she truly knew what she was talking about.
When I asked what she thought the core problem was, she told me: “The city has waited far too long to focus on thoughtful economic development. There is no strategic plan and there is no Economic Development Department as nearly every other city our size has. Without a plan for our core business district, the entire town suffers. Sales tax plays in supporting our schools, roads, and fire departments, and our sales tax revenue has remained flat for a long time.”
Another key issue is the length of time it takes to open a business. “Planning, permitting, and most notoriously the design review boards are very difficult to navigate in Santa Barbara. The city is apt to blame the high price of commercial real estate, but we also need to look at our reputation as a business-unfriendly town. While there are efforts being made to improve this, we also need to address the negative perceptions.”
According to Amy, what needs to happen is to go from creating a vision to managing toward that vision. “We need a vision that addresses the next five to ten years as well as looking at twenty to thirty years out.” She knows that we are not the only city struggling, but sees the vacancy rate as an opportunity. “Right now we have the ability to decide what we want the make-up of our downtown to be. How much office space, restaurants or retail or residential?” She says that we have a cache worldwide and should capitalize on it. “We need specialty stores, downtown events, outdoor dining, and much more. It’s not just a matter of filling the vacancies, we should be designing our downtown to be a place locals and visitors want to be.”
Where is our elected leadership, I asked? “It is frustrating to see our city leadership fail to take action, often it seems because they fear being criticized. With our current mayor and a rotating group of council members, it has been hard to get any traction on downtown issues.” She also thinks that city leadership is too quick to blame online shopping for the decline of downtown, when there are many factors that the city could address more effectively, including safety and cleanliness, lighting, special events, supporting existing businesses, and encouraging the right kind of growth.
In June 2018, with downtown vitality on the City Council agenda, a group of stakeholders got together to work on the problem. There were representatives from non-profit organizations, property owners, commercial brokers, and business owners. Based on that meeting, Amy wrote a strategic planning document with 25 recommendations for revitalizing downtown, including establishing an Economic Development Department and hiring a team to develop a strategic plan for downtown. A consultant was hired; but, instead of returning a plan, they came back with additional recommendations that mirrored the original document and the need for a city department to oversee a thriving downtown. Instead of a Director or Department, the city decided to hire a lower level Economic Development Manager and that recruitment is currently underway. Whomever takes on that position will have a big task ahead of them. And it’s doubtful that one person could truly address all of the challenges. From Amy’s point of view, we have a very clear idea of what needs to be done, we just need the leadership, vision, and political will to get it done.
I hope this answers your question, Mathew.
Of course, I have presented Amy’s perspective on the problem. I have made no attempt in the column to contact public officials, for example, for other views. Contrary opinions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.