BY CONNIE LEWIS
Cole Davis’ job of convincing the public that downtown El Cajon is staging a comeback turned out to be easier than he originally thought it would be.
His El Cajon-based firm, G. Cole Davis & Associates, has been a public relations and marketing consultant to the El Cajon Community Development Corp. since 1998, two years after the agency was formed. It pays Davis’ firm $30,000 a year.
Like many Main Street business districts across the country, downtown El Cajon had suffered in the wake of major shopping malls luring customers their way.
“El Cajon had been the commercial center of the East County from the 1800s,” he said.
The exodus of shoppers and small specialty retailers began with the opening of Mission Valley Center in Mission Valley and Grossmont Center in La Mesa in the 1960s.
When Parkway Plaza opened in El Cajon in 1972, “it killed downtown,” Davis said.
“So the mom and pop stores there and the Penney’s went out of business because everyone was going to the malls,” he added.
The first step in touting downtown El Cajon’s redevelopment plan was to convince the city’s financiers and business owners that it presented investment opportunities.
The idea was to open the eyes of “local stakeholders” who had the ability to raise capital, start or expand their businesses, and make real estate improvements, Davis said.
“I think to some degree if there was difficulty, it was convincing ourselves, the people of El Cajon, that we could do this.
“People had been hearing about redevelopment long before anything really started to happen. Then the property owners said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ And they put their own money up.
“It took the stakeholders to demonstrate that they were interested.”
As new businesses popped up on Main Street and elsewhere, the redevelopment story began to jell, Davis stressed.
“Before that, we couldn’t go out and say, ‘Hey, come to El Cajon, it’s fabulous,’ and they come out and they find they’ve been lied to, they’d be angry.
“I’m not in the business of blowing smoke.”
According to David Cooksy, El Cajon’s director of redevelopment and housing, the city has sprouted 108 new businesses that have created 474 jobs, during the nine years that the Community Development Corp. has been in operation.
To Davis’ surprise, getting media coverage on the city’s progress, as it unfolded, was easy.
“I thought that projecting a positive image of El Cajon would be met with disbelief, even ridicule, but that didn’t happen,” he said. “Take the media, for example. I anticipated having to overcome a negative perception of El Cajon.
“But what I found when we started telling the city’s story, which hadn’t been told for so long, was that the media was very interested in what was going on.”
And the story has shelf life as the redevelopment push continues.
“There are many new businesses and investment money that wasn’t here before, and it’s not just El Cajon people who own and buy more. People are coming from out of town. They are exposed to the vision and want to be part of it,” he said.
Claudia Goertz, who owns an 11-unit office building on Douglas Avenue and has bought, refurbished and resold three homes in El Cajon within the last three years, says the downtown redevelopment has improved the city’s overall image.
“It has definitely made El Cajon look much more favorable to people who before would not have considered living here,” Goertz said.