BY CONNIE LEWIS
Anyone driving east on Main Street through downtown El Cajon for the first time probably wouldn’t know that the city’s core was once considered blighted.
On one side of the street, a Starbucks Coffee shop anchors a modern mixed-use retail and office development. It sports a handsome clock tower and shaded colonnades.
Farther east, older buildings bear fresh coats of paint. New retail enterprises and quaint restaurants have filled once-vacant storefronts. A condominium project has sprouted up in the heart of the city on Douglas Avenue and more are under way on Park Avenue.
But clues of the past lie in some weed-ridden vacant lots, such as one surrounded by a chain-link fence at the corner of Magnolia Avenue and Main.
Referred to as “brown fields,” they reflect a municipal redevelopment strategy that initially focused on razing abandoned and condemned buildings in the hope that a developer would surface to clean up and reclaim them, according to Cole Davis.
Davis heads El Cajon-based G. Cole Davis & Associates, a public relations consultant for the El Cajon Community Development Corp.
Much remains to be done to fulfill the vision of becoming a thriving, family-style urban environment. Yet Claire Carpenter, the president and chief executive officer of the El Cajon Community Development Corp., a property-based business improvement district, credits the cooperation between business interests and city government for jump-starting the plan.
“I think the formation of the property-based business improvement district was absolutely the key,” Carpenter said. “I honestly don’t think the city could have done as much, and done it as fast without that partnership with the property owners. And I don’t think the property owners could do as much without the city.”
The district comprises 252 parcels of property, up from 187 when it was created in 1996. The owners pay fees to the district based on a formula involving their properties. Other revenue sources include fund-raising projects, grants and event sponsorships.
Carpenter said the agency’s proposed budget for the current fiscal year, which began July 1, is $1.8 million.
In the nine years that the Community Development Corp. has been in operation, the city has sprouted 108 new businesses that have created 474 jobs, according to David Cooksy, director of redevelopment and housing for the city of El Cajon.
Slowing The Flow Of Traffic
One of the first and most important projects undertaken by the city and business improvement district, which was formed in 1996, was to narrow Main Street’s traffic artery from four to two lanes, Carpenter said.
“What happened was that people were driving too fast and were going through here, and not to here,” she added. “Once the angled parking was completed at the end of 1999, it was clear that (the redevelopment plan) was moving in a new direction.”
By narrowing the road, cars were slowed and the space that was freed up was reconfigured for angled parking. Additionally, wedge-shaped sidewalk extensions were created, which some eateries, such as Por Favor, use for curbside patio dining.
The revitalized downtown sports a grassy area with park bench seating where outdoor concerts are staged. A farmers market was launched this month and a Wednesday night auto show, the Cajon Classic Cruise, which is in its fifth year, is a popular draw.
But at least one El Cajon businessman, Bob Durrant, who wants to redevelop the East County Performing Arts Center, questions why the El Cajon City Council “is dragging its feet” in putting out a request for proposals on the planned project.
The 1,142-seat center, which opened in 1977, and is part of the Civic Center complex, forms the centerpiece of what Carpenter refers to as “East County’s culture zone.” But it’s a money loser that has been run by the city since late 2004 after the last management team failed to meet its financial obligations, according to published reports.
The center has had a series of management teams, and the City Council is expected soon to put out requests for proposals from other parties interested in the job.
Durrant says his plan would benefit the theater by adding some offices, retail stores, restaurants, a hotel, conference center and parking facility.
At a projected construction cost of more than $40 million, the proposed expansion would add about 100,000 square feet to the existing structure and would be privately financed.
Just as important, Durrant says, it would give the facility street frontage, which the tucked-away theater lacks.
El Cajon Mayor Mark Lewis disagrees that the city is dragging its feet. He blames the state, saying it needs to announce its plans relating to combining the municipal and state courts, which are now housed in the East County Regional Center, adjacent to the theater.
A two-story parking garage that currently serves both the theater and the regional center could be razed if the state decides it wants to erect a new building, Lewis said. The city needs to know what the state’s office requirements are before it can move forward with its own land-use plan, he added.
About a month ago, City Hall sent a letter to state officials requesting information on their plan, but they have yet to reply, Lewis said.
“The idea is to combine all the agencies, so the county, city and state would be working together, but it hinges on the state getting its act together,” he said.
Daryl Priest, who heads El Cajon-based Priest Development Corp., said he thinks that getting the arts center on firm financial footing is important to the continued improvement of downtown, but new housing development is equally important.
“The Performing Arts Center is a piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the most important piece,” Priest said. “I think residential real estate development is the driving engine for revitalizing downtown.”
Priest’s company built downtown’s first townhome project, 28 units or row houses on Douglas Street, which he says were all sold more than a year ago at prices ranging from $300,000 to $380,000. The company recently broke ground on another 103-unit townhome project on Park Avenue, but the price ranges haven’t been determined.
One of the big problems facing the Performing Arts Center, Priest said, is competing with the county’s American Indian casinos to get headliner acts at an affordable price, since musicians and artists can command more money to perform in the casinos. Nevertheless, he agrees that vacant land near the arts center should be put to commercial use and the city should move forward to get proposals.
Mike Fenton, who owns Muzik Muzik on Main Street, said the arts center was and has the capability of being “a world-class theater” that can be a boon to downtown business.
“I got business off that from the touring bands,” he said. “People came from as far away as La Jolla to attend performances, and when they were over, they poured out into the streets and went to the restaurants.”
He recommends that the City Council, in selecting a new management team for the theater, makes sure that it continues the tradition of bringing in big-name, nationally known acts that can draw attention to El Cajon and its businesses.