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Sags Appear After Face Lift in Old Town

Redevelopment: Downtown Camarillo sports a more upscale feel, but merchants say many customers, steered away by construction, haven't returned.


CAMARILLO — After five years of work and several million dollars spent on an ambitious face-lift, Old Town is looking spiffy these days.

Ventura Boulevard has been narrowed, brightly colored flowers dot an expanded boardwalk, and Victorian lamps provide a nostalgic charm.

But many merchants are still waiting for the magic ingredient that makes for a successful downtown--eager consumers ready to stroll, browse, eat and shop.

"Right now things certainly aren't warm and wonderful," said Clarence Bales, owner of Black Tie Billiards, which opened five years ago when redevelopment was being planned. "I like the way it looks but it's killed my business."

The downtown is a 10-block commercial strip that runs along Ventura Boulevard, south of the Ventura Freeway, stretching from Carmen Drive on the west to Lewis Road on the east.

The first two phases of the downtown redevelopment project, which began 18 months ago, have resulted in a more upscale look. But at the same time, the project has hurt business because of heavy road work and a lack of parking.

Bales said many of his regular customers just stopped coming.

"They got out of the habit," he said. "I don't know how much longer I'll be able to hold on."

Several merchants said even though construction on the second phase ended a couple of months ago, they are still struggling to make ends meet. Some complained the city needs to do more to promote downtown.

The redevelopment effort was initiated by the city in 1995 to revive a decaying downtown that could not compete with the new outlet malls that sprang up along the freeway. After years of enduring neglect, Old Town business owners asked the city for help in attracting customers.

In response, the city set up a 1,000-acre redevelopment zone comprising a wide swath of land that includes the area between Las Posas and Flynn roads.

When a redevelopment zone is established, a city sets aside a portion of property taxes in a given area to help pay for future improvements. The money is also used to provide loans and other aid to retain and attract businesses.

This isn't the first attempt at redevelopment.

In the 1970s, the city spent more than $1 million to bury utility lines, build large curbside planters and install larger trees. But nothing more was done to help promote the area.

As part of the most recent Old Town face-lift, Ventura Boulevard was narrowed to slow traffic and "Old Town" signage was erected along the commercial strip.

The city is offering each merchant a $2,000 grant to purchase and erect new business signs. The city has also offered to pay 50% of facade construction up to $12,000, and another $2,000 toward architecture fees.

Tony Perez, former redevelopment coordinator for the city, said the incentive package is one of the most generous he has seen for such a project.

"Other cities want to do more," he said, "but they don't have the budget to do this."


The offer does not stipulate any particular design, but there are guidelines, such as minimizing the amount of wood used on storefronts. There are also constraints that require property owners to maintain their building exteriors for at least seven years.

About 20 of 90 downtown businesses have taken the city up on its offer. Others say they don't want to spend the money.

"Giving me $2,000 will cover the cost of one letter" on a sign, said Russell Soebbing, owner of Abbey Carpet Outlet.

Soebbing said he moved to his location near Carmen Drive because of the store's visibility from the freeway. The city wants him to replace his back-lit sign with something more classy, such as a sign with lights illuminating letters from the front.

The strip, which is divided from the rest of the city by the Ventura Freeway, sports a quirky mix of businesses specializing in everything from wigs to paint to miniature dolls and toy trains. There is also an assortment of restaurants and bars.

But there is a significant problem with the layout. In Old Town, businesses hopscotch from one side of the street to the other, discouraging customer traffic in some pockets.

Bill Fulton, an urban planning expert, said Camarillo residents, like others who live in suburban areas, yearn for a public space that is more inviting and reflective of the city's history than mostly sterile, look-a-like outlet malls. He said a revitalized downtown could be a great benefit to the city.

"Most people in this county view themselves as suburban or rural, but they do respond to good, strong places," Fulton said. "There is enough urban fabric in Old Town Camarillo to make it work. But it will have to appeal to locals who are interested in having a place experience that is different from the endless mini-malls on the other side of the freeway."

Tony Boden, the city's planning director, said downtown Camarillo could benefit from more coffee shops, bookstores and cafes.

Councilwoman Charlotte Craven said she wants the city to market downtown to retailers that would attract more shoppers.

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