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Oxnard Signs of Revival Bring Optimism Back

Economy: Renovations help, but loss of two major businesses hurts as efforts to attract multiplex theater continue.

September 14, 1997|CHRIS CHI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OXNARD — With sidewalks lighted by street lamps and vagrants shooed from a nearby park, optimism about the future is running high in downtown Oxnard's business community.

The positive outlook is a big change for small-business owners. In past years, they have watched as shopping malls and failed city revitalization plans drained life from a commercial hub.

In fact, most of Oxnard's just-finished $2.2-million downtown renovation dealt with correcting a past city blunder.

Gone are the handful of pergolas and planters lining A Street--remnants of the city's effort nearly 30 years ago to protect small businesses from shopping malls by turning the street into a pedestrian-only district. The city reopened A Street to cars in 1987, but construction workers have made it even more auto friendly by straightening a twisting four-block stretch and adding nearly 100 parking spaces.

At Plaza Park, rundown bathrooms that became hangouts for drifters have been razed. So have diseased pine and elm trees. Ill-kept reflecting pools that filled only after storms have been removed.

Yet while much has been torn down, the city has made one key addition: light. About 60 turn-of-the-century-style street lamps have been added throughout downtown and Plaza Park. Simple as they are, the lamps have nonetheless brightened the spirits of even the most skeptical shop owners.

"At night, downtown is lit up like a football field," said Charles Johnson, a television salesman whose family business has been downtown for 60 years. The lights, he says, have stretched the business day of some stores, many of which shut down at 5 p.m. "I'm getting more and more people drifting in," Johnson said. "It's nothing for me to be here at 6, 7 p.m."

There are other signs of revival along the downtown sidewalks of Ventura County's biggest city.

The Oxnard Downtowners, a 3-year-old group of small-business proprietors, has seen membership jump from about 50 to 70 since city renovations began this spring. Hoping to sustain the momentum, the group has launched a recruiting drive and is conducting a broad survey to gauge the needs of downtown's diverse businesses.

Meanwhile, a handful of newcomers has filled vacant storefronts. Many point to Cloud Nine, a new restaurant and club near City Hall, as evidence that night life is picking up. Another new restaurant, Southern Belle, is scheduled to open in Heritage Square, the downtown collection of restored historic buildings that officials boast is their finest redevelopment effort to date.

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Businesses report modest increases in customer traffic, with shoppers drawn by the new look.

"A good-looking downtown can't help but bring more customers," says photography store owner Betty Kennedy, one of the downtown veterans to have weathered the rise of shopping malls, factory outlets and local redevelopment controversies. "The things that have been done show city officials are very concerned about downtown. It's a psychological boost."

As workers put the finishing touches on the city's renovation project earlier this summer, however, it was also clear that the downtown struggle is not over. In a one-block stretch of A Street, for instance, two of the biggest and busiest locations are clearing out.

Bank of America has already emptied its local branch. Down the street, the folksy F.W. Woolworth store is in the midst of a clearance sale as the Woolworth corporation ends America's dime-store era by shuttering 400 locations nationwide.

"Those are corporate decisions, not decisions about Oxnard," City Councilman Dean Maulhardt said of the two closures. But, he added wistfully, "Woolworth was an institution, and its closing does bother me."

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Business leaders acknowledge that they face an uphill battle in bringing shoppers back to downtown Oxnard, which sits several miles from the Ventura Freeway. The 12-block district is bordered by Oxnard Boulevard to the east, 2nd Street to the north, Wooley Road to the south and C Street to the west.

Tila Estrada, president of the Oxnard Downtowners, said the primary obstacle for local businesses is the negative perception many people have of the city, home to 157,000 residents.

"We're perceived as a dirty, migrant worker town," said Estrada, a real estate agent with plans to open a downtown deli. "The perception is, 'You're going to Oxnard?' It's hard to fight that."

Estrada says the city should spotlight Oxnard's Latino heritage with Mission-style architecture.

But downtown appears destined to remain an eclectic mix of Mexican restaurants, Oriental specialty stores and Anglo-influenced monoliths, such as the red brick Oxnard Library.

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In a 50-page downtown Master Plan approved last year, the city did not adopt any theme for the district, but outlined some basic architectural guidelines--"visible roofs shall be clay tile, concrete or slate"--and goals--"downtown Oxnard will offer vitality and excitement."

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