Getting a Revival Right

Citrus Heights, CA  |  By Jacqueline Fox
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“We want to see this area have its own identity and we would like to see it become a walkable destination, but in order to make that happen we need to address the issues that are turning customers off,” said Richard Hale, owner of Walt’s Auto Service and founder of the Auburn Boulevard Business Association. Photo by Jacqueline Fox

Auburn Blvd. Business Group Crafts Vision for Revival

Citrus Heights, CA (MPG) - Trail a finger down the list of businesses dominating the stretch of Auburn Boulevard from roughly the entrance to Rush Park to Interstate 80 and you’ll find it dominated by a somewhat incongruous offering of service-related outfits, many long-standing vibrant business, while others, suffering from aging signage, dingy parking lots, blight and empty storefronts within feet of their entryways.

Auto repair shops, a veterinarian hospital, tire stores, a printing business, a smattering of gas stations, a few hamburger stands, one new restaurant and a couple of long-standing cafes, as well as several industrial firms, one in business on the boulevard for more than 80 years—all vying for customers in an area struggling for identity as age and a lack of visual cohesiveness, fueled by the growing number of retail vacancies, blight, graffiti and a swelling homeless population collectively work to drive potential customers away.

“We want to see this area have its own identity and we would like to see it become a walkable destination, but in order to make that happen we need to address the issues that are turning customers off,” said Richard Hale, owner of Walt’s Auto Service and founder of the Auburn Boulevard Business Association (ABBA), a group of roughly two dozen local business owners from the area, formed in 2016 to represent the businesses in the corridor from Sylvan Corners to Interstate 80.

Armed with a grant of $25,000 from the city, ABBA’s goal, says Hale, is to work alongside officials as they begin to craft their plan for completing the second phase of the Auburn Complete Streets Revitalization Project, which would continue with the improvements completed in Phase I in 2014.  Phase I covered the stretch of the boulevard running from Rusch Park to Sylvan Corners. Phase II, which remains unfunded at this point, will address the boulevard from roughly Grand Oaks Boulevard to Whyte Avenue.

ABBA would like to see all of Auburn Boulevard obtain a “destination” status and attract new, relevant businesses to the area, such as a big box retailer or two, new restaurants and customer-friendly experiences, anything that would help define and revitalize interest by the community in the area, which will include improvements but also a plan for addressing the growth of homelessness in the area.

With nonprofit status, a board of directors and funding in place, ABBA members rolled up their sleeves and convened for a two-part brainstorming workshop at city hall in September to begin crafting the bones of a final report city officials will use as they prepare to begin Phase II.  Roughly 20 ABBA members, guided by city-funded facilitator, broke out into workshops focused on the four core issues of concern identified at previous ABBA meetings, concerns they view as having a direct impact on their bottom lines: blight and safety, homelessness, a lack of cohesiveness and brand for the area, and the widespread number of vacant storefronts.

“This is the beginning of the future of ABBA,” said Hale.  “We are going to have a say in how we shape what happens next on Auburn Boulevard and we are very glad you’re all here.”

City Manager Chris Boyd, who attended the first of the two-part workshops told the group the city was committed to a plan for revitalization that reflected the desires of the business owners and the community at large.  But he reminded them the plan will take funding and time, likely two to three years.

“I think we have some of the greatest opportunities on the boulevard,” Boyd said. “Our objective is to finish the second phase and we need federal grants in order to make that happen by 2019. We are at a point now where we need to be very focused. The city can’t just do this as a local government. We need the businesses involved.”

Sketching out a vision for the corridor, ABBA members said they want to see their portion of the boulevard, part of the original Transcontinental Highway stretching from Reno to Atlantic City, not only attract customers and new businesses, but also deliver a renewed sense of community pride.  Asked to consider the boulevard and not just their own business, ABBA were asked to comprise a list of desired of aesthetic, as well as cultural changes.  What they came up with was a long list of things ranging from new boulevard signage reflecting the corridor’s historic relevance, a retro-inspired architectural theme with cohesive paint, fencing, signage and graphics for all the businesses in the area, a marketing and branding campaign for the boulevard to attract new business, community-focused events, such as a weekly farmer’s market, street closures for family festivals, and a neighbor-to-neighbor approach to building up interest in the area as a local destination, not just a mainline for the highway.

“We want to see more restaurants and big retailers that people want to shop at come in because they will entice more businesses to come in,” said Linda Finn who manages Aba Daba Rentals’ Citrus Heights location, which benefited from some upgrades under Phase I. She is currently planting flowers in front of the business, which is dominated by cement mixers and heavy equipment, guarded by a wrap-around, wrought iron fence.

“I’m planting flowers in the planter in the front, I’ve been getting out and talking to other business owners in the area, and, so far, being a representative on ABBA has really been inspiring.  We all want to see the area get better.”

Over and over again the group came up with adjectives to describe a revitalized Auburn Boulevard, adjectives such as “inviting,” “appealing,” and “secure.”  They say they want it to be both industrial-friendly, but modern, contemporary and convenient.  And, above all, it needs to be safe.

Realizing that vision will require a delicate balancing act between the city, business owners and local law enforcement as, many agree, the growing homeless population is at the root of many of the areas of concern.  Vacant buildings are prime real estate for homeless encampments and transient behavior, which in turn, leads to blight, crime, drug and alcohol related problems and are a significant deterrent to companies scouting new locations.

“A lot of the concerns we all have are tied to the homeless population,” said Hale. “But we are working on how to address it and we have a plan to work with the city and law enforcement to figure out first, why they are here, and then how we take care of it.”     

While the city’s Activate Auburn grant program offers funding to small businesses to refurbish storefronts, signage and make other aesthetic improvements, the homelessness issue and related problems seemingly continue to work against those efforts in some instances. 

Martin Garcia, co-founder of Crepes & Burgers, which opened on the corridor in February, said although he received a grant to refurbish the building and that business was slowly building, he and his staff frequently deal with transients and a frequent presence of police activity involving the homeless, both of which are impacting operations and customer loyalty.  

“The city offered to help me bring my business here,” said Garcia, whose previous restaurant, Crepe Escape in East Sacramento burned down in 2015.  “This building was a complete disaster but the city told us they were working on a plan to make this area nice.  But often at night we have a lot of homeless people congregating around the area and a lot of times there are a lot of police and sirens coming around to deal with it.  We have to close at 9 p.m. now because after 10 p.m., we see the homeless out there walking around and screaming and customers won’t stop to come in.

Police officers assigned to the city’s Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design program (CPTED) are working nonstop with business owners on ways to deter the homeless from sleeping in their doorways, congregating at night and vandalizing their shops, encouraging them to install better lighting, surveillance systems and fencing, and cautioning them to ensure there is no access to public Wi-Fi or outlets for charging phones.

The City’s Homeless Assistance Resource Team (HART), comprised of representatives from local non-profits, churches, the San Juan Unified School District, and Sunrise MarketPlace has received support to coordinate efforts with a city appointed Homeless Outreach Navigator, one individual, who acts as a case manager, connecting homeless individuals with city and county resources. 

Despite the challenges, there is momentum.  Roseville resident Ben Aibuedefe announced plans earlier this year to bring in a Checkers Burgers on the vacant corner lot at Auburn and Grand Oaks boulevards. Maita Mazda set up shop in a new 40,000-square foot facility in May and is upgrading another Mazda dealership at 2410 Auburn Blvd. 

And, while perhaps representing one of the starkest examples of vacancy related concerns, there is a move afoot to bring in a Movie Studio Grill to share space alongside Big Lots, which is tentatively slated to take up a portion of the long-shuttered 90,000-square-foot Kmart building.

The city also is said to be courting the San Juan Unified School District to potentially purchase the surplus chunk of land that housed the former Sylvan Middle School for a future development project.  Although he declined to specify details, Mayor Jeff Slowey told ABBA members at the first of the two meetings that the city was vigorously pursuing the parcel for “great things.”

ABBA’s vision for revitalization is now on paper and part of a working “action plan,” a first big step toward a formalized report to be crafted by the consultants and delivered to the city and ABBA members at the group’s next meeting November 14.

“We’ll be taking everything we have worked on here in the two sessions and drafting a very thorough and detailed report that reflects the vision for the future of Auburn Boulevard as the business owners have laid it out,” said the firm’s founder, Lucy Eidam Crocker who facilitated the workshops. “We are working with them every step of the way to make sure they are heard and represented.”

For more information about ABBA, please visit www.auburnblvd.com

For more information about the city’s CPTED program, please visit www.citrusheights.net