OXNARD — Louis Salinas never wanted to move his jewelry business out of downtown Oxnard. But as the city's commercial center decayed with age, and as merchant after merchant fled, he felt he had no choice.
After three decades, Salinas relocated his shop to a strip mall on the north side of Oxnard. That was in 1983. He has all but given up hope of ever returning downtown.
"I'd like to move back, but there is no incentive," said Salinas. "There is no reason for me to believe that downtown is going to prosper, that it is going to make it."
A lot of merchants who have stuck it out and sunk their life savings into downtown businesses also worry about the future here.
Once the city's thriving core, downtown Oxnard has become a hodgepodge of struggling retailers and abandoned storefronts. Like downtowns across America, Oxnard's central business district has been robbed of customers by indoor malls, retail strip centers and television shopping channels.
But it also has been hurt, merchants say, by bungled redevelopment schemes and the city's desire to lure tax-generating businesses to land beside the Ventura Freeway.
"The city fathers are going after the big money and they are stepping on the little merchants," Salinas said. "They went after those dollars and destroyed downtown."
Over the years, downtown revitalization has been studied and restudied at a cost of about $200,000. There have been Blue Ribbon panels and revitalization committees established to help jump-start the troubled area.
The latest effort is a program to consolidate all the old ideas into a master plan for the 50-square-block area, aimed at attracting millions of dollars of private investment over the next two decades.
Many merchants see the master plan as the best chance, and perhaps their last opportunity, to restore downtown to prominence.
"Downtown is supposed to have some kind of major attraction," said Maria Balderrama, manager of Anita's Bridal Shop on A Street. "It's sad to say, but there's not enough down here to make people want to come. Whatever plan they have, I hope it works."
There are about 450 downtown businesses, said Dennis Matthews, administrator of the city's Redevelopment Agency. They are a ragged collection of pawnshops, discount stores and one-room eateries. Downtown also has a couple of churches and a funeral home.
At the center of the business district is Plaza Park, where the homeless gather. Nearby, the old Vogue movie theater has been converted into a thrift shop.
Dirt lots, cleared over the years for redevelopment, sit empty.
But there are signs of rejuvenation in pockets of the business district. A new red-brick city library and transportation center give a fresh look to this rugged cityscape.
In the last seven years, Matthews said, the city has poured about $25 million in redevelopment money into efforts to improve downtown.
"We're trying to lead by example," Matthews said. "Our role is not to replace the private sector, but to prime the pump to get the private sector process working again because it left downtown years ago."
At the heart of those redevelopment efforts is the $10-million Heritage Square project at 7th and A streets, where 13 turn-of-the-century farmhouses have been redesigned to accommodate an assortment of businesses from lawyers to insurance agents to a hair stylist.
Oxnard Councilman Andres Herrera moved his business to Heritage Square when it opened in late 1991.
"I wanted to come back to downtown so I could see it grow and develop," Herrera said. "I think this can serve as a good catalyst for future development. I really see the possibility of regaining what we used to have in the downtown."
Downtown used to be the place to shop in Oxnard, recalled Chuck Johnson, owner of Johnson's Television and Video.
The shop, founded by Johnson's father in 1937, thrived side-by-side with shoe stores and upscale clothiers. Back then, he said, merchants built their trade on personalized service.
"Where else can you get that today?" he asked. "I don't know or understand the onetime sale. Here it's a lifetime investment."
Johnson and others say two things happened in the 1960s that sealed the fate of downtown Oxnard.
First, the city closed several blocks of A Street and turned the stretch into a pedestrian mall, driving customers away. About the same time, the Esplanade Mall opened on the outskirts of Oxnard.
For the old-timers such as Johnson, who have staked all they own on a comeback for downtown, the current city practice of promoting development along the Ventura Freeway remains a sore point.
"They do that so they can get more tax revenue and then they'll throw us a bone every once in a while," said Steve Otani, who manages Otani's Seafood Restaurant near Heritage Square.
Still, some who have stayed downtown can't see themselves leaving.
"I grew up in downtown, it's family," said Vince Behrens, who took over American Drive-in Cleaners from his father, who started the business in the 1940s. "I just can't turn my back on it."