Lizeth Perez, 33, has lived in Pacoima all her life, but the only businesses she remembers patronizing there are a Jack in the Box and a tattoo shop that's no longer open.
She spends her money instead in neighboring Arleta, which boasts a CVS, or Panorama City, where there's a Wal-Mart. Pacoima's main drag, she said, feels too dirty and desolate to make for comfortable shopping.
"I don't like the stores here so I don't shop here," she said while dropping off a package at the Pacoima post office. "All of my money goes to buying things outside Pacoima."
In this northern San Fernando Valley neighborhood, forgotten by job-providing manufacturers and ignored by major retail chains, local boosters are hoping to combat Pacoima's woes with an economic solution: a bustling, walkable Main Street built nearly from scratch.
Business leaders want to cultivate a commercial core full of retailers and restaurants among the husks of stores left abandoned for decades on the central Van Nuys Boulevard drag.
The plan is to replicate the economic renaissance brought to communities such as Culver City by new shopping and dining districts. An incubator for small businesses is set to open in the fall, as is a new retail complex. Foodie-friendly cafes are thriving near the discount stores and fast-food outlets dotting the stretch.
Los Angeles Councilman Felipe Fuentes said he is working on an easier permit process that would allow restaurants to place tables and chairs on the sidewalk. He's even considering paying for strolling mariachi bands to liven up the public space.
Strategies to slow down and scale back traffic on Van Nuys are in the works, as are efforts to make the corridor more bikeable.
But Pacoima remains a uniquely challenging place for commerce.
Nearly 4 in 10 residents live below the poverty line. Fewer than 2 in 10 have at least a bachelor's degree, and more than half haven't graduated from high school, according to an analysis of census data.
Over the years, the San Fernando Valley region has lost job generating facilities from Lockheed Martin and General Motors. Pacoima's median annual income is roughly $42,100, compared with $50,000 across the city of Los Angeles, according to government figures.
It's not the most attractive demographic for the jewelry emporiums, office supply chains and French-inspired eateries that populate upscale shopping centers.
Potential business owners would also be hard-pressed to find stable financing and banking options in Pacoima. The district hosts dozens of check cashing outlets and payday lenders but only three traditional financial institutions — a Citibank branch, a Wells Fargo outpost and a credit union housed in a former pawn shop.
In San Fernando, one community over, there are twice as many banks.
Pacoima has fewer than 500 businesses, making it extremely under-retailed compared with nearby areas. The few big-box chains near the main stretch — Costco, Best Buy and Lowes — arrived in the last few years. A Target operates near the Arleta border. There's no movie theater or Starbucks.
"A Black Angus, even a Denny's … that would be so nice," sighed Ramiro Estrada, a former president of the Pacoima Chamber of Commerce.
Estrada would love to see a Starbucks move in. Nearly half of Pacoima's population is younger than 24, and they have nowhere to congregate, he said. There are no Internet cafes where they can job hunt, no coffee shops or bookstores where they can study.
"I don't see that kind of business open and stay open — they just come and go," he said. "A Starbucks would be an anchor business, attracting similar businesses in a snowball effect. The community would start to develop from that."
Pacoima has some built-in advantages as a potential commercial center. Several major transit arteries — Van Nuys Boulevard, San Fernando Road, Laurel Canyon Boulevard, and the 5 and 118 freeways — pass through or near it.
But for more than half a century, since it evolved from its agrarian roots into a bedroom community, Pacoima has been criticized for being unfriendly to small businesses.
In the mid-2000s, a group called Pacoima Partners formed to shepherd a $1.6-million project to expand a street median, renovate building facades along Van Nuys Boulevard, add benches and plant trees.
Once the so-called Pacoima Town Center project was complete, Pacoima Partners faded away. The district was eventually stripped of its designation as a "Main Street" community by the state, which had given Pacoima access to marketing and planning help.
Pacoima businesses for years also had access to special tax credits through California's enterprise zone program, which sought to stimulate economic development by encouraging investment and hiring in dozens of economically weak regions. But the program is being phased out starting this year, leaving many small operations in the lurch, Estrada said.
"No one's building any new commercial space on Van Nuys because there's no incentive to," said Roberto Barragan, president of the Valley Economic Development Center. "You can put in new street lamps and trash cans, but at the end of the day, if the only retail space there is 50 years old, you're not going to be able to build the kind of town center you want."
Barragan's nonprofit is constructing a small business accelerator on the street — a modern, modular building now rising on a lot that once housed an auto repair shop. The project spent two years embroiled in the city's permitting process.
The 13,300-square-foot structure was helped by a $3.75-million federal grant, won after developers tried but failed to get aid from the city. Councilman Fuentes, however, helped waive $300,000 in infrastructure costs that Barragan's group would have had to pay to help widen nearby streets.
Barragan hopes the incubator, which will provide consulting services to local entrepreneurs, will be operational by the end of October.
Slightly to the north, Sherman Oaks developer Agora Realty & Management Inc. is building Zocalito of Pacoima, an 18,000-square-foot retail complex. The previous building was run-down, with peeling paint, said Aaron Lefton, Agora's vice president of acquisitions.
When it opens in November, the open-air market will feature two small restaurants, a healthcare group and a Verizon telecommunications branch near a heavily trafficked bus stop. Larger national brands were apprehensive about the area's low median income, Lefton said.
"When tenants would drive by the site, they'd just see a blighted building," he said. "But once we started renovating, that's when we started building excitement."
Fuentes has high hopes for the strip.
The Foothill division of the Los Angeles Police Department has set up a fledgling "business watch" team on Van Nuys Boulevard, Fuentes said. The dedicated team of officers patrols the retail strip, often stopping into stores to introduce themselves.
In just a few months, they've reduced crime along the corridor by 15% and apprehended 20 people with outstanding warrants, Fuentes said.
"We haven't been able to capture what would make people want to walk along that corridor," he said. "That's what would start making it really appealing to folks who bring in the capital."
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