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Oxnard Signs of Revival Bring Optimism Back

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With sidewalks lighted by street lamps and vagrants shooed from a nearby park, optimism about the future is running high in downtown Oxnard’s business community.

The positive outlook is a big change for small-business owners. In past years, they have watched as shopping malls and failed city revitalization plans drained life from a commercial hub.

In fact, most of Oxnard’s just-finished $2.2-million downtown renovation dealt with correcting a past city blunder.

Gone are the handful of pergolas and planters lining A Street--remnants of the city’s effort nearly 30 years ago to protect small businesses from shopping malls by turning the street into a pedestrian-only district. The city reopened A Street to cars in 1987, but construction workers have made it even more auto friendly by straightening a twisting four-block stretch and adding nearly 100 parking spaces.

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At Plaza Park, rundown bathrooms that became hangouts for drifters have been razed. So have diseased pine and elm trees. Ill-kept reflecting pools that filled only after storms have been removed.

Yet while much has been torn down, the city has made one key addition: light. About 60 turn-of-the-century-style street lamps have been added throughout downtown and Plaza Park. Simple as they are, the lamps have nonetheless brightened the spirits of even the most skeptical shop owners.

“At night, downtown is lit up like a football field,” said Charles Johnson, a television salesman whose family business has been downtown for 60 years. The lights, he says, have stretched the business day of some stores, many of which shut down at 5 p.m. “I’m getting more and more people drifting in,” Johnson said. “It’s nothing for me to be here at 6, 7 p.m.”

There are other signs of revival along the downtown sidewalks of Ventura County’s biggest city.

The Oxnard Downtowners, a 3-year-old group of small-business proprietors, has seen membership jump from about 50 to 70 since city renovations began this spring. Hoping to sustain the momentum, the group has launched a recruiting drive and is conducting a broad survey to gauge the needs of downtown’s diverse businesses.

Meanwhile, a handful of newcomers has filled vacant storefronts. Many point to Cloud Nine, a new restaurant and club near City Hall, as evidence that night life is picking up. Another new restaurant, Southern Belle, is scheduled to open in Heritage Square, the downtown collection of restored historic buildings that officials boast is their finest redevelopment effort to date.

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Businesses report modest increases in customer traffic, with shoppers drawn by the new look.

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“A good-looking downtown can’t help but bring more customers,” says photography store owner Betty Kennedy, one of the downtown veterans to have weathered the rise of shopping malls, factory outlets and local redevelopment controversies. “The things that have been done show city officials are very concerned about downtown. It’s a psychological boost.”

As workers put the finishing touches on the city’s renovation project earlier this summer, however, it was also clear that the downtown struggle is not over. In a one-block stretch of A Street, for instance, two of the biggest and busiest locations are clearing out.

Bank of America has already emptied its local branch. Down the street, the folksy F.W. Woolworth store is in the midst of a clearance sale as the Woolworth corporation ends America’s dime-store era by shuttering 400 locations nationwide.

“Those are corporate decisions, not decisions about Oxnard,” City Councilman Dean Maulhardt said of the two closures. But, he added wistfully, “Woolworth was an institution, and its closing does bother me.”

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Business leaders acknowledge that they face an uphill battle in bringing shoppers back to downtown Oxnard, which sits several miles from the Ventura Freeway. The 12-block district is bordered by Oxnard Boulevard to the east, 2nd Street to the north, Wooley Road to the south and C Street to the west.

Tila Estrada, president of the Oxnard Downtowners, said the primary obstacle for local businesses is the negative perception many people have of the city, home to 157,000 residents.

“We’re perceived as a dirty, migrant worker town,” said Estrada, a real estate agent with plans to open a downtown deli. “The perception is, ‘You’re going to Oxnard?’ It’s hard to fight that.”

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Estrada says the city should spotlight Oxnard’s Latino heritage with Mission-style architecture.

But downtown appears destined to remain an eclectic mix of Mexican restaurants, Oriental specialty stores and Anglo-influenced monoliths, such as the red brick Oxnard Library.

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In a 50-page downtown Master Plan approved last year, the city did not adopt any theme for the district, but outlined some basic architectural guidelines--"visible roofs shall be clay tile, concrete or slate"--and goals--"downtown Oxnard will offer vitality and excitement.”

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To achieve that, city officials and shop owners agree that much more work needs to be done. Neighboring Ventura and other cities across the county are continuing their downtown renovation efforts, and nobody in Oxnard wants to fall further behind in the downtown derby.

Competition for retail dollars within city limits is also intensifying. The aging Esplanade mall will spruce up its exterior in a bid to attract more customers, while the booming Rose Avenue retail corridor has added more stores.

City officials continue to negotiate with an El Segundo developer to bring a 14-screen multiplex theater to a vacant, city-owned lot on the corner of A and 5th streets. The development, which would include trendy eateries, is expected to go before the City Council in November.

Shop owners and city officials see the theater as crucial, a means of jump-starting the area’s moribund night life.

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Ventura urban planner Bill Fulton noted that Ventura, too, is building a downtown multiplex.

“Throughout Southern California, in suburban downtowns, you’ve seen it,” said Fulton of the multiplex trend. “Santa Monica, Glendale, Burbank, you name it. It’s hard to believe the movie-going public is going to sustain this building. I think there’s no doubt the cineplex market is going to get overbuilt.”

Still, Fulton said, the multiplex could help shore up downtown Oxnard’s base of local shoppers. Residents in south Oxnard and Port Hueneme are far from the county’s most popular theaters, Fulton said, and a new multiplex in downtown Oxnard would be convenient for them.

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“Downtown Oxnard is very well-positioned to capture local business,” he said. “That would seem to be the natural competitive advantage.”

Another key issue in downtown Oxnard is the shift in responsibility from City Hall to private storefronts.

Local government officials say store owners need to raise their own money to sustain the revival.

City Planner Alex Herrera, for instance, said officials already have done plenty for downtown. He and others point to Heritage Square, the project at the corner of A and 7th streets launched in 1985.

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For $9 million, the city has converted the collection of historic homes into office buildings. The busy square also hosts popular weekend concerts, weddings and plays.

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And the city Redevelopment Agency has earmarked about $200,000 a year during the next three years to improve parking lots and keep two police officers assigned to a community police storefront. It also has hired consultants to put together a sign program designed to draw motorists on Ventura Freeway and Oxnard Boulevard, which links the Ventura Freeway and the Pacific Coast Highway, to downtown.

The city continues to subsidize the Oxnard Downtowners, paying for the part-time salary of downtown coordinator Yolanda Pina. Pina replaced downtown manager Peter Apanel, who was fired last year. Apanel, now working on a revitalization project in Pomona, has accused Oxnard officials of neglecting parking needs in their rush to bring in a movie theater.

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In the meantime, city money for downtown is running out. Planner Herrera said subsidies of about $170,000 that helped nine businesses fix up their storefronts or move into downtown are depleted.

“We’re getting to the point where the redevelopment agency and the city have done everything they can do,” he said.

“What we need now,” adds Councilman John Zaragoza, “is for the business owners to come forward.”

For their part, Oxnard Downtowners say they are ready to step up fund-raising efforts. With help from the city, they have hired a consultant to help them find ways to pool advertising dollars and entice shoppers with festivals and sales. But with funds currently limited to $100 annual membership dues, the Downtowners are far from self-sufficient.

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“It’s a volunteer group, and we can’t move a mountain without money,” said group President Estrada.

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Some store owners argue that city officials have a responsibility to continue financing the revitalization effort. And taxpayers have a big stake in downtown--the city owns 25% of the property there, according to redevelopment department estimates.

Many of the problems, business owners add, were brought about by the city’s focus on sprawling malls along the Ventura Freeway. That siphoned local customers from downtown and kept out-of-town motorists from heading downtown, they say.

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“I think the city building everything on the outskirts of town has hurt,” said Gloria Stuart, whose BG’s coffee shop on A Street has a clientele of City Hall employees, farmers and downtown business workers.

“I just hope they’re not going to forget about downtown,” Stuart said. “We just want to become a town again--not a ghost town, but a vibrant town.”

Adds television store owner Johnson, who saw customer traffic drop to three or four people a day during the biting recession of the early 1990s:

“These officials, they lost the idea that what makes a town is its downtown. But they’re waking up. I hope this is just the beginning.”

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About This Series

“Heart of the City: The Rebirth of Downtown” is an occasional series describing the efforts to revitalize the downtown shopping districts in Ventura County’s 10 cities. Today’s installment focuses on Oxnard. Future stories will examine renovation plans in other communities.


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