Pete Nichols stood on the sidewalk in downtown Santa Paula and envisioned tourists strolling on flower-decked streets, past antique shops and green parks where mariachi bands played.
Nichols and about 100 other Santa Paula residents spent the last two years developing that vision. Meeting as often as once a week, they created a plan to restore the historic character of the city's downtown and make it more tourist-oriented.
Last week, the city accepted the residents' 49-page report, which included maps and graphs, and hired an architectural firm to bring about the plan.
"They are going to take the conceptual plan and put it into engineering, architectural and financial realities," said Santa Paula City Manager Arnold Dowdy. Work could start as early as this summer.
Dowdy said the residents' efforts have saved the city $50,000 to $100,000--fees the City Council would have paid to a consultant to come up with a similar project.
"The citizens' involvement in the community represents big savings for the city," Dowdy said. "And I believe that they have also done a better job than any consultant because this is their town, and they know better than anybody what they want."
Nichols, a 20-year Santa Paula resident who owns a bookstore downtown, said that about two years ago he and other residents and merchants began to gather and discuss what they could do to improve the downtown economy.
"We began with a small group of people, but soon we had people from all over town coming to our meetings," Nichols said. "Everyone was really committed to the quality of the project."
As residents who happen to be historians, architects and engineers joined the group, they created committees to design and examine the feasibility of the project.
The technical design team met nearly every Wednesday from 7:30 to 9 a.m. while others met in the evenings, said Dan Diaz, a member of the technical design team.
At the end of the two-year project, the residents submitted a proposal with their suggestions to the City Council.
The project calls for refurbishing the square-mile downtown area that runs from 7th Street in the west to 12th Street in the east, and from Harvard Boulevard in the south to Railroad Avenue in the north.
"To attract customers from surrounding areas, the downtown should emphasize a pedestrian-oriented street-scape that complements the historical components of downtown," the report stated. "Informational signage, displays of public art and other such amenities can create a strong identity for the downtown, thus giving it an individual character and commercial drawing power."
Other recommendations include making the 10 parking lots downtown more accessible and increasing the number of boutiques and arts and crafts shops. The downtown now contains a variety of stores, but there are several empty lots and vacant storefronts. Some of the buildings, dating back to the 1890s, have lost their original facades to more modern renovations.
The plan would create a unified look to reflect the city's historic architectural styles, which include Queen Anne, Spanish Colonial Revival and California bungalow.
"We have been able to put this plan together because Santa Paula residents have a strong sense of community and we all want to maintain the character of our small town," Nichols said. "We are like one living organism--neighbors are always helping neighbors in Santa Paula."
Dowdy said the residents' willingness to design a plan to improve the city's downtown comes at a crucial time for the local economy. Two years ago the city faced a financial crisis and was barely able to balance its budget.
Although new businesses such as Blockbuster Video and Taco Bell have helped increase the city's sales tax revenue by 24% in the past year, Santa Paula still has one of the lowest per capita incomes in Ventura County, Dowdy said.
"We need to improve our economy and we need the residents to help us," Dowdy said. "That's just a necessity."
City officials were so pleased with the downtown group's work that residents are now involved in helping the city develop its General Plan and renovate other areas, Dowdy said.
On Tuesday, a group of residents met with city staff to discuss a proposal that would allow the city to increase its boundaries. After an hourlong presentation by an environmental planner, residents asked questions and expressed their views on where and how the city should expand.
Dowdy said the city has received some federal grants to help pay for the downtown project. The city has not yet estimated the cost of the project. Meanwhile, residents like Diaz say they will continue doing whatever they can for the city.
"I'll be working to preserve this community till I die," said Diaz, who runs a restaurant that has been in his family for 60 years. "Like many other residents, our grandparents grew up here and we are working to keep what belongs to us."