FAIRFIELD — When a state agency wants to show a downtown for California’s Main Street Program, a photograph depicts Fairfield and its famed arch that proclaims the city as the county seat of Solano.
The California Office of Historic Preservation website shows the Fairfield sign along Texas Street, where downtown revitalization is among projects before the city’s new economic development manager.
Bryan Briggs, named to the post in December, has said he wants to learn more about the central business district before commenting – but downtown businesses have plenty of ideas about how to bring more customers to the downtown area.
Ericka Scott, manager of the Teeny Tots Children’s Store at 948 Texas St., said she hears daily from people about how more parking is needed. Phil Seehausen, manager of Ray’s Cycle, includes putting cameras in alleys to deter crime as among ways to boost downtown. Zhimei Chen, who with her husband Jiaming Li owns the retail store Chiame, suggests a site for conventions as a way to boost business.
Beverly Cavazos, owner of the Cornerstone Quilt Shoppe, confronts a different kind of parking challenge. The store has its own small lot for cars, but because drivers don’t pay attention to signs, the site can be full of vehicles not going to the quilt store. That’s a problem when people are coming with sewing machines and can’t access the store’s parking, she said.
Marge Block, owner of the dress store Napadashery, said excellent business owners are downtown – an area whose lower rents also brings in the inexperienced with undercapitalized companies, she said.
Fairfield resident Ken Kemble, who was at Ray’s Cycle, remembers a downtown Fairfield with two movie theaters. The 1981 graduate of Armijo High School said he was in Petaluma recently and that the Sonoma County community’s downtown, once distressed, is doing well with stores that include Whole Foods.
The Fairfield Main Street Association has said a single word answers the question of why stores such as Crate & Barrel don’t open downtown. “Demographics,” the association recounted in 2012.
Large retailers and chain restaurants look for specific criteria before locating sites, the association said.
Margaret Manzo, executive director of the Fairfield association, said the central business district faces some logistical limits.
“We’re a linear downtown – six to eight blocks,” she said. “There’s no place to gather in the middle.”
But while such a site would benefit Fairfield, Manzo said, different property owners control the private land.
Fairfield has worked with Hollister, south of San Jose, to improve the farmers market here.
New development director Briggs has spoken about the success of movie theaters in bringing people downtown – and Fairfield Mayor Harry Price said he’s on the right track.
“Historically, it’s very clear when there were two theaters downtown it was a very popular place,” Price said. The central business district is becoming that again, said the mayor, citing the restoration of the courthouse as furthering interest in downtown.
But for John Costanzo, who owns downtown properties including the site of Starbucks, accounts about revitalizing the central business district appear about twice a year while little changes.
“Nobody ever does anything,” he said.
One of the things that should be done is to provide additional parking, Costanzo said. Few spaces are available on the 800 and 900 blocks of Texas Street, he said. Another necessary effort is to hire a consultant to develop a master plan or have people who care about downtown develop ideas, Costanzo said.
A movie theater isn’t coming after Edwards cinema was built at the mall, he said. “That ship sailed,” Costanzo said, calling the loss of a movie complex downtown a major mistake.
Costanzo said he’s provided private security around his properties between 1 and 5 p.m. – an addition that Costanzo called a significant improvement but one that shouldn’t be his responsibility when the police station is just two blocks away.
Laura Cole-Rowe, executive director of the California Main Street Alliance and a former director of the Fairfield Downtown Improvement District, said malls can’t match what a downtown can deliver.
“I can go to a mall and find the same stores as in Fairfield as in Concord, as in San Diego,” she said. People want an experience that shopping centers can’t provide, Cole-Rowe said. A unique downtown can be a city’s identity, she said.
Fairfield in the late 1980s saw San Luis Obispo and its successful farmers market as a model, Cole-Rowe said, but the demographics here are different from the college town on the Central Coast. The Fairfield Center for Creative Arts that opened along Texas Street in 1990 is a 400-seat theater whose smaller size probably deters regional touring acts from appearing, she said.
“I don’t think it ever performed as the city would have liked,” Cole-Rowe said of the center as an anchor for downtown.
Vacaville often wins praise for its downtown and the city’s attention to its historic buildings. Napadashery owner Block said Fairfield’s downtown isn’t rich in such old sites.
“We have to work with what we have,” she said.
Quilt store owner Cavazos said Vacaville also benefits by not having a mall – as Fairfield does – competing for customers.
Fairfield in its bid to revitalize the central business district also faces the continuing economic downturn, Cavazos said. That complicates efforts, such as attracting anchor stores, she said.
“In this economy,” she said, “I just don’t really think there’s all that much you can do.”
Block’s almost half a century in business means she’s seen booms and bad times in the national economy – including the downturn that started late in 2007.
“I’ve survived four recessions,” she said. “This was by far the worst.”
The business district has down well by adding the farmers market and with events like the Tomato Festival, Block said.
Next, suggests Ray’s Cycle manager Seehausen, should be downtown matching what the Solano Town Center mall does. He said the shopping center sends representatives to try to attract businesses to locate at the mall. Downtown, Seehausen said, should ask stores at the center about coming to the central business district.
Fairfield Main Street Association executive director Manzo said downtowns don’t develop overnight.
“It takes time,” she said. “It is happening.”
Pepperbelly’s, the comedy club that closed after a January 2013 fire at the site, is under review for new uses. The building, whose root reach back 90 years and that was once home to Vaudeville, could be restored as a movie theater, Manzo said.
People often point to another city’s central business district and say that’s what Fairfield should do, she noted, but duplicating another downtown won’t work.
“Uniqueness is the secret,” Manzo said.
Reach Ryan McCarthy at 427-6935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.