Downtown Ventura storekeepers hope that a walk along the city's Main Street will be a glimpse into the future.
As vacant storefronts and rundown facades give way to new shops with eye-catching designs, many involved with the downtown revival think the area has positive momentum on its side.
"We targeted this block three years ago," said Kelly Brown, co-owner of the Natural Cafe, which opened its Main Street doors last week. The restaurant and juice bar also operates businesses in downtown Goleta and Santa Barbara.
Brown and co-owner Mark Larsen were drawn to Ventura because of their building's old natural-brick walls and wood floors and because Main Street reminds them of Santa Barbara's State Street 10 years ago.
"You're getting more upscale clients on Main Street," Brown said.
In the past year, several new eateries and stores have opened there, with more commercial and residential developments on the horizon.
Among the plans: 26 townhomes at Santa Clara and Garden streets, a hotel next to the Mission San Buenaventura, a hotel to replace the Meta Motel on Thompson Boulevard, and a 32-unit apartment complex with 14,000 square feet of commercial space at Oak and Poli streets, said Doug Halter, former president of the Downtown Community Council and chairman of its redevelopment committee.
A diversity of retailers is key to the economic health of downtown, Halter said.
"A successful downtown can't make it on secondhand furniture and clothing," he said.
In recent months, even long-vacant buildings have found new tenants. The historic Bank of Italy building, used most recently as a set for the film "Swordfish," is now home to the Parts Unknown clothing store. The store opened July 1 in a section of the building.
Dan Scully, owner of the Oxnard-based clothing company, had his eye on downtown Ventura for some time before deciding to move in.
"That's the only spot I would consider," Scully said. "Hopefully we're contributing to the image of the street."
As the neighborhood gentrifies, it will draw even more tourists, Scully said.
"The street is improving rapidly," he said. "When people learn about Ventura, soon more and more people will stop there before they go on to Santa Barbara."
Across Main Street from Parts Unknown, Bank of Books plans to have its post-"Swordfish" facade renovations completed within the next two weeks.
Elsewhere on the street, Fine Jewelry Works and East restaurant plan August openings, as does the Ventura Beach Club, which will take over the old Metro bar space.
The city is constantly working to draw new businesses into the downtown redevelopment area, said Alejandro Herrera, an associate planner with the city's redevelopment agency. The area generally is bordered by Poli on the north, the Ventura Freeway on the south, Highway 33 on the west and Ash on the east.
"We're certainly very enthusiastic with what's happening downtown," Herrera said. "We think the best is yet to come."
One measure of that success is the increase in market rents and property values, he said. In 1997, the city collected $907,000 in property taxes from downtown. The estimate for 2000 collections is about $1.4 million, a 54% increase, Herrera said.
But those improvements have come at a price. In the past several years, the city has spent about $18 million on such downtown upgrades as parking, signs and infrastructure.
It's also offered incentives.
Toy Metropolis, which opened its doors July 3, took advantage of city-sponsored revitalization programs to help with signs, facade and a low-interest start-up loan, said co-owner Jeanne Danning.
"They have been an integral part in getting our doors open," Danning said. Co-owner Becky Burnham has lived in the area for 17 years and thought the timing was right to take a shot at her longtime dream.
"I've seen downtown go through its little revival," Burnham said. "I never looked anywhere else. I wanted to be able to walk to work."
A year ago, Holly Breiner and her husband, Jerry, opened Mermaids beachwear on Main Street after scouting other locations that were closer to the beach.
"I loved the atmosphere of the buildings," said Breiner, now president of the Downtown Community Council. "There's good camaraderie. We have a great little community here."
Many owners said that downtown could use more bike racks and public restrooms, as well as more family-friendly shops. Other merchants said more late-night dining options would help.
"If they're walking in the door, we'll keep ringing the cash register," Larsen said.