DEL MAR — In an effort to provide support for downtown businesses, council members agreed at the April 15 meeting to create a task force, designate a staff person to act as a business coordinator, begin resolving parking issues and identify ways to reduce the cost of opening restaurants in the city.
The recommendations came from Mayor Terry Sinnott and Councilman Al Corti, who noted in the staff report that “downtown businesses are not prospering.” About 45 percent of Del Mar Plaza is vacant and sales tax revenues, which indicate the amount of business being conducted, have been flat, according to the staff report.
“It’s very frustrating to me that the city’s not doing more to encourage business,” said resident Sharon Hilliard, vice president of design for the Del Mar Village Association. “We’re going to end up being a bedroom community, and I really don’t think we want to be a bedroom community because our property tax revenue’s going to start going down, too.”
Corti said when it comes to plans for an economically viable downtown, they seem “to be going backwards as opposed to going forward.”
“We think we have a problem,” Corti said. “We’re not too sure what the solution is, but we’d like to get a standing committee of business people and merchants in downtown that can discuss it and make recommendations as to how we might be able to fix it.
“This is not a discussion as to what the solutions are as much as let’s address what some of the concerns are and what the impediments are,” he said.
“We have citizen committee groups for parks and rec and sustainability and traffic and parking and the lagoon — many of the things that are dear and near to the community,” Corti added. “But we never seem to get back to the community plan and one of the specific goals and objectives of having an economically viable downtown.”
Adding to the problem is increased competition from the nearby and recently renovated Del Mar Highlands and Flower Hill Promenade and the proposed One Paseo.
There is also feedback from some business owners that the city’s permitting and regulation processes contribute to the perception that Del Mar isn’t a good place to do business.
The handful of residents and owners who addressed council members supported that notion.
“I think what you really need in this city is business owners to feel like this is a good place to be,” Del Mar Rendezvous co-owner Daniel Schreiber said.
KC Vafiadis, who owns Stratford Square, said a recent new tenant told her he felt the city put up more obstacles rather than invite him in.
“I hear that from other people as well,” Vafiadis said. “I don’t think that the City Council needs to market our businesses. But I do think that you guys are in a position where you could encourage them and help them.”
Some speakers also cited parking requirements and a lack of spaces as contributing problems.
“I frankly think that parking is a mess,” said Richard Earnest, former mayor and current vice president of economic improvement for the Del Mar Village Association. “Whether that’s perceived or real, we need to figure that out.”
The task force will initially be formed for two years. It will include business owners and city department heads who will meet regularly to identify the top difficulties and impediments to doing business in Del Mar.
They will also create a project list of improvements. One city staffer will be assigned to proactively advise and help businesses implement those improvements.
The plan also calls for the city to begin a process to resolve all business parking issues downtown and to promote Del Mar as business-friendly in communications with the community.
“We need to counter the perception that ‘you should never try to do business in Del Mar,’” the staff report states. “That … will only cause our downtown to further deteriorate in the years to come.”
The most recent city attempt to revitalize the downtown commercial area was Proposition J, which called for changes to building codes and narrowing Camino del Mar to two lanes with roundabouts. The measure was defeated in the November election.
Councilman Don Mosier said one thing he discovered while crafting the plan was that only 25 percent of residents shop or dine in Del Mar.
“That is an abysmally low number for a small community with a business district,” Mosier said. “We’re not getting support from our residents for our businesses and I’d like to know why. If you can walk two blocks to a nice restaurant, why don’t you do it?”
Sinnott suggested trying to implement what in Proposition J was acceptable to the community.
“I’m excited about this opportunity,” Councilwoman Sherryl Parks said of the proposal. “The city should step forward now.”