Editor's note: This is the second in about downtown revitalization in Watsonville.
Enter downtown Watsonville on a summer Wednesday at 6 p.m. The streets are lined with taquerias, party supply stores and many old, vacant Victorians. There are few people out—save for those lounging in the shade of the tucked into Peck and Main—and teenagers who form a line for ice cream.
The downtown is lacking vibrancy, some city employees and residents say, but it has potential. So Watsonville is trying to infuse more life into the infrastructure that fills the area in and around Main Street, fixing the streetlights, refurbishing blighted structures, attracting new business and, eventually, pulling in more customers.
“All these factors added together makes for a more viable business environment,” said Katie Mahan, chairwoman of the Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce. ”Right now the business climate downtown is bleak.”
The old Gottchalks building on 407 Main St. has been empty since the chain store went bankrupt in the summer of 2009. It was downtown’s “anchor tenant,” a big-name business that draws customers to the area. So far no one has signed a lease for the space, according to Kurt Overmeyer, Watsonville’s economic development manager, who says the city is in talks with national retailers.
All new downtown businesses will have to fill already existing buildings. Because of Measure U, Watsonville cannot annex additional land until 2025. The city is restricted to “infill projects,” said Overmeyer, referring to undertakings where there is already a building or where a previous use still exists.
“In Watsonville, we’re pretty constrained geographically,” said Overmeyer. “We can’t really grow.”
Watsonville’s core economy rests, not surprisingly, outside of its downtown: in agriculture. If the Pajaro Valley were its own county in California, then it would be the fifth largest, thanks to being a veritable harvest basket of famous strawberries, apples, broccoli and artichokes. More than $280 million every year is spent transporting these crops to far-flung locales around the globe.
Of Watsonville’s 10 largest employers, only one is stationed directly downtown. The City of Watsonville, the fifth-largest employer, counts 374 people. The Pajaro Valley Unifed School District seizes the top spot with 2,061 employees.
With the closure of Gottchacks, all Watsonville’s big national chains are located far off the downtown corridor. , the city’s seventh-largest employer with 211 staffers, and Starbucks are all a mile away.
Some stores, said Overmeyer, will not consider moving anywhere in Watsonville. Trader Joe's, for example, will only move to areas with an average family income of $60,000 or more a year, according to Overmeyer. Watsonville’s median household income, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, is $47,526.
Many businesses, such as , housed in the historic Mansion House Hotel on Main Street, struggle to retain clientele. The budgets of their once core customers are dwindling because of a lack of work. The Buffet keeps prices the same as they were two years ago, baiting a lunchtime crowd with a $6.99 all-you-can-eat buffet, but cannot make a profit.
“Nighttime is very slow,” said China Golden Buffet co-owner Sunny Dong, who has operated the business with her husband for six years. “And after an apple factory nearby closed, lunch has been very slow.”
Now her prime clientele are the high school students who trickle in on their lunch break, drawn to the restaurant’s most popular buffet item: shrimp smothered in sauce. It is also the most expensive to keep in stock, said Dong. Over the summer, when events such as the Watsonville Strawberry Festival come to town, more people also pour into the space.
“Sundays in the summer are good for us,” said Dong, as two families walk through the door. She took their orders in Spanish, the primary language of 40 percent of Watsonville’s population.
One newer business has managed to stake a claim to the downtown market. The , forming a niche with all-organic, fair-trade ingredients, opened during the heart of the Great Recession of 2008. Its growth has been upward, riding off of the lunchtime crowds of the courthouse across the street.
“It has to do with the belief of sourcing the best quality ingredients,” said co-owner Mackenzie Fullmer. “Now we don’t hear anymore about how expensive we are.”
Still, the cafe, housed in a large airy room with rich red walls and local art, has not yet made a profit.
“It’s still a struggle,” said Fullmer, a first-time coffee shop owner. “It’s getting better month to month.”
Shortcut Computing, which opened 10 months ago on East Beach Street, is also seeing a steady stream of business. A line forms behind the store's main counter around 6 p.m., clientele drawn in by the only computer repair shop downtown.
“This is always our rush hour,” said Orlando Corea, a computer repair technician and owner of Shortcut Computing. “People get off work and bring their computers in.”
There are drawbacks to being right downtown, said Corea, such as the lack of parking spaces, and one-hour-only parking that is heavily monitored. “I’ve gotten five parking tickets since I’ve been here,” said Corea, who commutes to work every day from Santa Cruz.
Tokens of progress still dot the downtown streets. Signs were recently put in place on Main Street, proudly announcing the city’s turn-of-the center architecture and rich history. A new brightly painted strawberry and pepper mural coats the corner of East Beach Street. Other murals have been spread across various downtown building surfaces through Watsonville's new Public Art Program.
The city is the process of adding more streetlights, according to Overmeyer. While the first phase of the project is almost complete, the city is waiting on permits from Caltrans, which Overmeyer said they expect to receive soon, to begin the second phase.
“Right now, it’s too dark at night,” said Correa. “Downtown at night is not a good place to hang out.”
But for daytime downtown dwellers, the city is trying to refurbish the space: The new Hansen Park with mowed grass and paths sits next to ACE Hardware. Once overrun by tattered weeds, the redesign is a project of the the Watsonville Redevelopment Agency.
Many of Watsonville’s businesses were damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, and never fully recovered. Yet the RDA, through a Community Development Block Grant Program, has been refurbishing parks like Hansen, polishing parking lots and repainting damaged store fronts.
New chain businesses—an ARCO, Wingstop and Supercuts—also have recently set up shop in the city. And, most summer weekends, festivals dot the center square, and the farmers’ market now stays open a half hour later, until 7:30 p.m.
On Friday at 7:15 p.m., new market vendor Jesus DiCecco displayed baskets of organic freshly picked carrots and red onions. He casually chatted with the many customers who zig-zagged between fruit booths and vendors selling Mexican delicacies ranging from flan to flautas. The event coming to an end, he began to lower prices. Last call: two onions for a dollar.
“This is a nice place,” said DiCecco. “I’ll be back here next week, too.”