Apart from a half-abandoned exurban subdivision, there’s no clearer physical symbol of the Great Recession than the American auto mall. Carmakers both foreign and domestic have shut dealerships from coast to coast, leaving acres of empty concrete.
The effects in the Tri-Counties have been relatively mild, but there are still plenty of vacant auto mall spots in the region, and not many dealers aching to fill them. That’s why it was refreshing to see the Ventura City Council vote on Oct. 11 to relax the city’s requirement that all tenants of the Ventura Auto Center be auto-related businesses.
It’s a modest change, covering 5.9 of the auto mall’s 52.8 acres, but it’s a welcome one. It opens three parcels to general commercial purposes, which the city hopes will help the auto center become a regional retail draw.
There’s been talk around Ventura City Hall for years about bringing a big-box retailer to the area. The biggest box of them all, Ikea, is one possibility, though lately the rumors have turned to Costco or Bass Pro Shops.
The city clearly envies the success of the Oxnard Auto Center, where the car dealers are surrounded by Fry’s, Costco and other big retail attractions.
Opening these three parcels — now home to two closed car lots and a storage facility — should help the city get the retail mix it’s looking for. But more importantly, it will help the auto mall recover from the sales crash of 2008.
The free market is very good at deciding how to allocate commercial real estate. If selling cars and trucks remains profitable at the auto mall, then auto dealers will remain in business there, with or without the city’s restrictions. If more dealerships close, then vacancies will be much easier to fill if property owners are allowed to seek the best tenants, regardless of what line of business they’re in.
In fact, the city’s latest action doesn’t go far enough, since it keeps almost 90 percent of the existing auto center restricted to auto-related businesses.
There’s another wrinkle to this matter: As reported in the Ventura County Star, some of the auto dealers are nervous about the rezoning because it could clear the way for the Players Club, a poker room now on Ventura Avenue, to move to the auto mall.
The dealers — car dealers, that is, not card dealers — worry that a card room would be a poor fit. But the Players Club has always been a good citizen on the Avenue, not to mention a solid revenue generator. Now that the club has state approval to expand, the city shouldn’t stand in the way of it finding a new home off of Johnson Drive.