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Turlock wants to bring in the brides

The Central Valley farm town is making plans to be the state's top spot for wedding- related business.

August 24, 2008|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

TURLOCK, CALIF. — The downtown area in this Central Valley city is a little slow these days. More than 20% of the retail space is empty. Last week the big news was a skunk plopping down outside an antique store, shutting it for several hours until a government expert could tranquilize it and haul it away.

But in a couple of years, downtown could be a lot more exciting. As the business community sees it, brides-to-be from 100 miles around will converge on Turlock's vintage, tree-lined Main Street, seeking the perfect wedding dress, the perfect wedding ring, the perfect travel agent for the perfect honeymoon.

To the strains of piped-in classical music, they'll flit from boutique to bakery, leaving behind piles of cash in the city's once-sleepy heart. They'll dine in frou-frou restaurants and, maybe one day, they'll even get married in the specialty hotel that's sure to be drawn here.

Though the economic health of Turlock has hinged largely on almonds, cows and turkeys, there's been something else in the air lately: Call it love.

Eager to find a distinctive identity for the agricultural city of 69,000, a business group aims to turn downtown Turlock into California's biggest bridal destination. Planners have floated names for the district like "Courtship Square" and "Relationship Plaza." They envision signs bearing slogans like: "Turlock -- Where Wedding Dreams Come True."

Later this month, the City Council will be asked to give its blessing to the plan. The city will not be asked for money initially, but the plan's supporters hope eventually for redevelopment funds.

Mayor John Lazar, a lifelong Turlocker, as residents call themselves, was enthusiastic.

"What could be better than encouraging marriage and family values, and planning around that theme?" he asked.

If it goes as planned, the six-block stretch of Main Street will be one of just a handful of neighborhoods in the United States devoted to premarital peddling. The best-known is in Reading, Ohio, a town outside Cincinnati whose "Bridal District" has 38 stores and sponsors promotions including a footrace called the Runaway Bride 5K.

"It's critical to our quality of life," said Linda Fitzgerald, Reading's economic development director. "It brings a stature and recognition to Reading that you can't put a dollar value on."

Fitzgerald said groups from half a dozen cities have called with questions about setting up their own bridal districts.

In Turlock, the Ohio model was taken to heart by Roger Brooks, a consultant hired by the Turlock Downtown Property Owners Assn.

"It'll put them on the map," said Brooks, whose Seattle-based Destination Development has advised several hundred communities on perking up their sagging images. "Right now, they don't have anything that distinguishes them from a lot of other towns."

Turlock, 12 miles south of Modesto, is home to Cal State Stanislaus. The Hilmar Cheese Co., which describes itself as the world's biggest cheese factory, is just beyond its borders. Megamalls and big-box stores anchor new subdivisions at the edge of town.

Lined with century-old, two-story brick buildings, Turlock's Main Street has been renovated with wide sidewalks, planters, old-fashioned lampposts -- all the trappings of a day-trip destination. The businesses are eclectic: Cindy's Doo-Dads here, Vegas Furniture there, a tearoom, a trendy restaurant, a hot dog stand. At one end is a boarded-up bank and at the other an empty storefront with a sign advertising a card room set to open in 2011.

"They dressed it up with a beautiful stage," Brooks said, "but there are no actors."

At the heart of a conservative farming region, Turlock isn't banking on gay weddings as a big source of revenue. But marketing surveys by Brooks' firm show an opportunity: "Within a 100-mile radius, we found a young population with a heavily Hispanic bent to it," he said. "There are a tremendous number of weddings -- and people in the region spend an average of $25,000 on them."

Scattered through Turlock are some 50 wedding-related businesses: disc jockeys, photographers, caterers and florists in addition to jewelry stores and dress shops. Bringing some of them downtown and recruiting others elsewhere seems like an obvious step to Jim Kimball, president of the downtown business group.

"We're not Carmel-by-the-Sea, and we're not the Napa Valley," said Kimball, a Danville real estate agent who owns a building in downtown Turlock. "We don't have a redwood forest. What we do have is a strong dairy and poultry community, but that's not what would make people want to take a trip here."

But one-stop shopping for brides -- who would otherwise traipse as far as the Bay Area -- might be a draw if it's aggressively marketed, said Richard Markel, director of the Sacramento-based Assn. for Wedding Professionals International.

"On average, a girl will go to five or six gown stores and drive several hundred miles if necessary," he said. "If they're all clustered in a few blocks, so much the better."

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