October 2, 2023
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Dubroff: Leadership needed to solve downtown Santa Barbara’s woes


Henry Dubroff

Henry Dubroff

You might call this Santa Barbara’s summer of discontent.

From a casual chat with friends in Ventura, to a breakfast talk at East Beach Grill, to dinner on the patio at Brent’s Deli in Westlake, to more formal conversations with retail and banking experts, the same issue keeps popping up.

What’s going on with downtown Santa Barbara? Where is the leadership? Will things ever turn around?

Right now the city and the waterfront are filled with tourists and it has the appearance of a typical beach town in a typical summer. But storefronts increasingly are vacant, vagrants are as aggressive as ever in demanding money and there doesn’t seem to be a solution in sight.

Downtown Santa Barbara, as the downtown organization is called, attempted to raise some red flags with a recently released retail study that seems to have gotten little political traction. It has correctly diagnosed part of the problem — failure to replace redevelopment money seized by the state that could be used to fund street maintenance and clean sidewalks, remove benches and just make the place look and feel classy again.

Outgoing Mayor Helene Schneider has bet much of her legacy on a proposed one cent sales tax increase to fund roads and infrastructure, but that will not necessarily replace the millions in missing RDA money.

The bottom line is that there is a leadership gap when it comes to creating a long-term future for Santa Barbara’s downtown.

Perhaps the gap will be filled somewhat when a new mayor takes over, but people I’ve been talking to are suggesting it would be wrong to hold your breath.

“This is the first time in more than 30 years that I’m worried about whether Santa Barbara can come back,” said veteran commercial real estate broker Steve Leider. That’s a view echoed by a longtime retail store department manager who is now in the health care field.

The retail disruption at the hands of Amazon that claimed the Macy’s store, a gaping vacancy in the heart of the roughly 15-block long State Street shopping district, has been well documented. The ownership structure of the Macy’s site is sufficiently complex that no easy solution appears to be at hand.

The automatic raises built into California’s eventual $15 per hour minimum wage are giving a lot of restaurant owners a reason to exit their full-priced eateries, which will no longer pencil out and allow them to make a living — especially when rents, food prices and other costs are going up.

Many of the folks I’ve talked to over the past few months are content to shrug their shoulders and suggest things will just turn around on their own. But one thing that hasn’t been factored into the equation is a lack of leadership and rising competition from other cities nearby. Ventura’s story tells a bit of both.

Under a series of leaders, notably former mayor and current councilwoman Cheryl Heitmann, the city took a strong stand against aggressive vagrants and it used money from newly installed parking meters to hire street “ambassadors” and extra patrols. The vagrant situation has eased and the city has begun attracting more young singles and working professionals. It doesn’t have the theaters and night life of Santa Barbara but it is gaining steam.

Likewise, San Luis Obispo is moving steadily to address a chronic housing shortage and it is reinventing retail with more brew pubs and specialized stores that can pencil out at higher rents. It also has an active startup scene with the HotHouse spawning new businesses of all sorts.

Santa Barbara still has its 11 million tourists and startup workspaces such as Impact Hub. But that core of innovative leadership has not yet emerged to lead the city to a bolder and more attractive mix of retail, restaurants and housing that’s so badly needed.

Diversity is a great strength of our regional economy and the Business Times tries not to be too Santa Barbara centric in its approach to coverage. But we also think we have a responsibility to tell it like it is.

Santa Barbara has a natural leadership role to play in the regional economy. It’s time to step up.

• Reach Editor Henry Dubroff at hdubroff@pacbiztimes.com.