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Let's make downtown Lincoln a destination

By: Carol Feineman, Editor
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My Lincoln friends hear me talk about how much fun I had at Grass Valley’s and Nevada City’s downtowns. Those friends who visit the Nevada County downtowns with me for “a night on the town” quickly see why I wish Lincoln’s downtown was similar. That’s because the Victorian and Gold Rush buildings in Nevada County are crammed with smiling and friendly customers at restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries/cafes, clothing stores, theaters and nightclubs. Lincoln’s downtown is cute and could also be a visitor’s destination, if more businesses were located here. Lincoln residents care about the vitality of downtown Lincoln. So does the city, I believe, since it paid $30,000 for a study by Gruen Gruen + Associates from San Francisco “to identify strategic marketing, planning and policy-related actions that build upon and enhance the downtown’s strengths given the anticipated completion of the Highway 65 bypass.” The 78-page report was reviewed weekly in May through this past Tuesday by Steve Art, the city’s economic/ redevelopment manager, and an ad-hoc group of eight business owners and the chamber of commerce’s Bob Romness. The ad-hoc committee is now asking Gruen Gruen + Associates for minor revisions, Art said Tuesday, before the committee presents the report to City Council on July 27. I read the report this weekend and saw most of the report’s recommendations for making Lincoln’s downtown attractive and lively were common-sense ideas generated in minutes by my friends when we compared Nevada County downtowns with Lincoln’s counterpart. Gruen Gruen suggestions, such as adding restaurants, cafes, stores and entertainment options, are obviously the way to go since there’s only a handful of eateries open and only one nightclub/bar open at night. According to the report that surveyed 200-plus downtown visitors, 75 percent were there to eat out. The report emphasized downtown Lincoln does not have the “entertainment, retail, cultural uses and activities” that younger-age and empty-nest residents desire. That’s obvious to anyone looking for nightlife in Lincoln. Other report findings that jumped out at me were that taxable retail sales within downtown Lincoln peaked at $42.5 million in 2005 but totaled just $28 million plus in 2009. Likewise, the eating and drinking category showed sales peaking at nearly $13 million in 2005 and decreasing to $9.5 in 2009. Downtown sales, according to the Gruen Gruen report, comprised nearly 93 percent of total sales in 2000. With shopping centers opening south of downtown, the downtown share of citywide sales declined today to less than 20 percent of total citywide taxable sales. Thus, the need to attract more businesses that will attract all ages to the downtown area. My friends, all of whom actively support downtown venues that host live music, could have given the city these recommendations for free. So did the Historic Downtown Lincoln Merchants’ Association, which in May of 2008 surveyed 37 downtown business reps on what the area needed. The 2008 survey, which said parking and traffic were major problems, was given to the Gruen Gruen representatives. Those representatives now echo the same problems. What was new to me, according to the city-sponsored report, is that the city imposes challenges to businesses. Specifically, the report said a factor discouraging businesses is “Significant start-up and permit fees for small businesses and a regulatory process and attitude that is not perceived as user-friendly.” With a $2 million city budget deficit, city officials and residents alike say that new businesses opening in Lincoln are needed. That would bring in more revenue to the area, thus balancing city expenses and preventing more job and services cuts. While I think city employees could have done their own in-house survey, thus saving $30,000 in redevelopment agency funds during a time that city services are being cut back, I’m glad the city wants to revitalize downtown. And I hope City Council now listens to recommendations by Art’s ad hoc committee on July 27. Art hopes City Council will OK forming transportation, marketing and branding, Web site design and communication, City Hall development processes and policies, events and economic-gardening task forces. “City Hall paid for this document but we don’t want it to just go up on the shelf and collect dust,” Art said. “This is for businesses people and property owners and people who have a stake in downtown. After it’s approved (July 27), we want to hear from customers on why they don’t come downtown. We’re looking for businesses and residents to join in the task forces.” If interested, call Art at 434-2447 to volunteer. Together, we can have a downtown where there’s always something to do, whether it’s morning, day or night. Carol Feineman can be reached at carolf@goldcountrymedia.com