Downtown Hanford image by Ravyn Cullor

published on April 5, 2021 - 11:31 AM
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Freeways have dragged business hubs out of the downtowns of cities across the country, but Central Valley cities are taking steps to build a different business community in the historical center of town.

Like most of the country, the Central Valley saw retail businesses move from downtown areas to strip malls and commercial centers along highways as residents moved into suburban communities, starting in the 1940s and stretching though most of the 20th century, said Emilie Cameron, board member for the California Downtown Association.

“It’s important to recognize that over the last 20 years or so there really has been a shift back toward focusing on downtown,” Cameron said. “A big part of that is because downtowns really are a place where it’s such a unique concentration of life, business, you name it, and I don’t think you get that in any other environment.”

As the main retail areas moved away from city centers, cities like Clovis, Hanford and Selma saw a different type of business and cultural value in a strong downtown area. All three of the cities are in distinctly different stages of revitalization.

The City of Selma has begun its first serious revitalization project since the ‘90s and is approaching it with a more long-term outlook, said Mayor Scott Robertson.

Downtown Selma was originally built around the train station, which served as a police station for a period, and saw big box retailers move towards Highway 99, which was ultimately beneficial for the city as a whole, Robertson said.

While some suggested trying to attract those retailers back to downtown, Robertson said he felt moving large stores away from the convenience of the freeways wasn’t ideal for in- or out-of-city customers.

“The reality is the big box retailers are going to go in the malls and wherever they can get the most traffic, and our city fully supports that,” Robertson said. “In order to revitalize downtown, there has to be a new vision. Downtown is … a unique area and it’s something that should be encouraged through flexible building codes, through an improvement district, and a strategic plan is important to that.”

Selma is working to move the business community in the area to more boutique and experience based models, as well as integrating mixed residential, cultural and office properties, to create an area where customers go to spend time as opposed to just shopping. Robertson said they are working to create more flexible codes to allow the properties in the area to do more with the historical buildings.

Cameron with the California Downtown Association said it’s important to have a mix of culture and business in any urban center because the vibrancy of the area often drives commerce, a workforce and a strong identity for a city.

Clovis started its revitalization process in the 1980s after seeing significant vacancy in business properties downtown, said Andrew Haussler, community development director for the city.

“When we brought together a group of property owners, business owners and the City to become partners, along with some funding mechanisms and guidelines everyone agreed to for a mutual goal, that started really coming together for Clovis,” Haussler said. “It took 20 years for it to get to a healthy spot, and now I’d say it’s on fire. Old Town is in super high demand.”

Haussler said Clovis has seen demand for business spaces in or near downtown, with very few vacancies and short lived availability of open properties, Haussler said. He said he’s also seen residential property demand near the downtown area grow as residents want to be near the area.

A sign of success in Clovis has been the ability for the businesses in downtown to keep pace with mixed demand from consumers Haussler said. While 10 years ago many of the shops in the area were antique stores, they have seen more businesses catering to younger consumers like coffee shops and high-end boutiques, with a mix of professional offices.

In Hanford, the nonprofit which focuses on revitalization efforts, Main Street Hanford, has seen a larger value in having professional offices which drive their employees to spend time downtown, said Executive Director Michelle Brown.

“Businesses that drive foot traffic is what we used to want in our downtown because if people are walking around, then they’re going to shop and go into several businesses,” Brown said. “However, the world is changing and so much of our shopping and retail is going online that it’s changed a lot of what we want to see in our downtown.”

As a nonprofit instead of a government agency, Mainstreet Hanford has to focus more on hosting events that drive interest in downtown, both by directing businesses to the downtown area and encouraging customers to patronize and invest in businesses in the area, Brown said.

In downtown Hanford, while some areas have been revitalized, they are in patches and areas of the downtown area are still rundown and in need of investment, Brown said. Even some of the large historical buildings have been sitting vacant for many years and are unlikely to be occupied soon, as it would require large investments from the city, she said.

An upcoming transit center near downtown will help solidify the downtown area and drive more revitalization, whether through organizations or by individual business owners, to the area, Brown said.

While each of the cities are pursuing different goals at their respective points in downtown revitalization, they all see their downtown area as an opportunity to shape their city’s identity through a mix of commerce and culture.

Cameron said this is an important part of business success in downtowns, especially as increasing remote work allows workers to choose where they live.

“We call it revitalization, but it’s actually going to be like a new downtown,” Robertson said. “It’s a little bit of back to the future, we’re going to capitalize on Selma’s historic appeal and the historic look of those buildings and, at the same time, there will be new ideas employed to bring new types of businesses and to bring residents who want that downtown living experience in a small town.”

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