POMONA — At first glance, Garey Avenue would appear to be just another main street in a depressed downtown area.
Pomona's main artery, it once cut through the commercial and cultural center of a fledgling but vibrant young city. During the 1930s and '40s, moviegoers could venture down Garey to 3rd Street to view the latest releases at the large, ornate Fox Theater.
Today the street is lined by a weathered assortment of storefronts, many of which are vacant. Among the most thriving businesses along Garey are two pawnshops. The Fox Theater still stands but has suffered from poor maintenance--"a flea trap," one city councilman called it. Across the street is an aging residential hotel.
Heart and Soul
But to City Administrator A.J. Wilson, Garey Avenue is the road that leads to Pomona's revitalization.
Wilson believes that a city's downtown area is its heart and soul. As city manager of Santa Ana and Kansas City, Mo., he sought to revitalize seedy inner-city areas with a vigorous public works program that included street repairs, landscaping, repainting and placing new awnings on buildings and erecting poles flying banners that proudly identified the areas as downtown.
Now, Wilson is trying the same approach on Garey Avenue, a strategy that he says is crucial to the city's economic revival.
"We either make a major impact and major improvement downtown or we're going to get nowhere," he warned last month, when the City Council directed the city staff to proceed with the project.
When the project, estimated to cost $1.2 million, is completed in a year, the storefronts along a 12-block stretch of Garey Avenue and some surrounding streets will be adorned with new facades, and banners bearing a rising sun will hang from the light poles. A clock tower will be built to add some distinctive character to the neighborhood.
"You're basically talking about creating an overall effect that this is a place," Wilson said. "I happen to believe the banners are a very inexpensive and versatile way of creating a sense of place. . . . I don't know if I've ever seen a place where that would be more true than here in Pomona along Garey Avenue."
But some Garey Avenue merchants, while supportive of the effort to spruce up their neighborhood, question the program's effectiveness.
"New awnings and banners and everything would be nice, but I think there's a lot more that needs to to be done in this town besides giving it a face-lift," said Monte Davis, co-owner of the Garey Loan & Jewelry Co. a pawnshop that his grandfather opened 23 years ago.
Instead of beautifying Garey Avenue, Davis said he would prefer to see more police officers patrolling the thoroughfare. He said crime and gang activity have tarnished Pomona's image, leading customers to prefer safer shopping areas, such as the nearby Montclair Plaza.
"With the reputation Pomona has, who wants to come down here when there's a nice, new shopping center?" Davis said.
However, Sanford Sorenson, the city's director of community development, said aesthetic improvements are the necessary first step to attracting businesses, which will in turn generate the revenues to bolster city services such as police.
"We've got to make it look like people care about downtown Pomona," Sorenson said. "We've got to begin on Garey Avenue."
One of the greatest challenges in the renovation program will be the 57-year-old Fox Theater, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places but also stands as a monument to Pomona's downtown blight.
City officials say the theater, which shows Spanish-language films, badly needs a paint job and other exterior repairs.
Councilman C.L. (Clay) Bryant has opposed proposals for the city to buy and renovate the theater, which he claims is substandard. However, Wilson said the theater is "the centerpiece as to what downtown is all about."
Wilson said the city wants to improve the outside appearance of the theater by repainting it and removing some imitation brickwork that conceals the building's original Art Deco tile.
This "de-modernizing" approach will be taken with many of the half-century-old structures in downtown, Wilson said.
"What we're trying to do is is go back as much as we can to the way the buildings actually were," he said.
Chamber of Commerce President Karl S. Cayford said the downtown renovations, along with street improvements on the southern part of Garey, should make the city much more attractive to investors.
"It's mainly the image of the city that this will assist," Cayford said. "I think improving Garey will make an improved image for downtown. It's a terrific plan, one that's long overdue."