The Downtown Business Association created the Downtown Business Development Corporation with the goal of beautifying our city’s center – and they’ve hit the ground running.
All roads lead to downtown Bakersfield, whether that’s the Westside Parkway; bike path; Amtrak line; or major streets like Truxtun and Highway 178, which funnel traffic into our city’s center.
A nearby high-speed rail station is even in the works, which would bring people from all over the state right into the heart of Bakersfield. To help support the area in these changing times, the Downtown Business Association jumped into action and formed the Downtown Business Development Corporation almost three years ago. Entirely not for profit, “It’s an organization that would allow for completely tax deductable donations to go towards redevelopment projects for basically any project that could benefit the community as a whole,” DBA Chairman and DBDC board member Kevin Bartl explained.
Inspired by work in Denver where a similar 501c3 was formed to provide funding for large-scale projects, the Bakersfield DBA decided to take things into their own hands. Kevin recalls, “We wanted to kind of take a page out of that book and provide an opportunity to make a donation to beautification projects [or] to potential redevelopment projects, whether it’s lighting or clean streets or things like that.” While they’re just getting started, the sky’s the limit for what they could do for downtown. Their major goal right now is “Just to enhance the climate in our downtown to make it more welcoming…to increase people’s perception that our downtown is safe and walkable and basically make it as pedestrian-friendly as possible,” Kevin commented.
To this end, DBA President Cathy Butler said, “We held a crowdfunding campaign to illuminate a dark alley with bistro lighting (Wall Street Alley). We also worked with property owners and supporters for additional murals downtown. We worked with an independent company to start a pedicab service for downtown.” Additionally, Cathy said the DBDC is “working with the City Historic Preservation Commission with an updated sign ordinance for neon signs.”
She continued, “We also worked with Keep Bakersfield Beautiful and placed additional trash cans with artist’s flowers in the Arts District.” These trash cans are maintained by the Street Ambassador program, a coordinated effort between the DBDC and other local nonprofits which provides at-risk individuals with employment and sends them out to clean up the streets. This allows them to not only pick up trash but to perform outreach to individuals in need who are facing circumstances that they have personal experience with.
“The Street Ambassador program has been really successful for the downtown area. The guys do a really good job of keeping the area clean,” said John Enriquez, with Keep Bakersfield Beautiful and president of the Fox Theater Foundation. And they don’t just pick up trash, they clean up dead leaves, remove small graffiti, and as John recalls, he even caught them pulling weeds out of planters. “I’ve talked to a lot of the business owners downtown and they’re very happy and they’ve been able to see a very big difference,” John continued.
The beautification of downtown wouldn’t be complete without creating room for new growth. With a little bit of work, there is some great potential for businesses to move in. Cathy explained, “There are some underdeveloped properties that I think would be ideal for corporations to relocate downtown and we’ve got a great partnership with the city and we can work with those businesses. We’ve had two urban planners that have been in town that said we had great bones and that we’re just ripe for developers.”
Change is in the air. Longtime residents can remember when downtown “was just basically Chester avenue. But now with the expansion of the medical community, we have three major hospitals in the downtown area and then with that we have supporting businesses that have, like the pebble in the pond, [brought in] other types of businesses,” Cathy added. As these businesses open, they also bring along employees, who live, shop, and eat downtown. This has helped to create a bustling restaurant scene for them and people who are looking to relocate to that part of town.
With downtown being the dining hub of the city, a big interest of the DBDC is updating the Food Truck Ordinance to make it easier for mobile food vendors to do business. As more and more people start to work in our city center, this would give them diverse fast and local options for their lunch breaks. “You cannot find a dining area more concentrated with the various types of cuisines that we have available and to add a bunch of food trucks to that mix and what they bring to the table is great. And the brick and mortar restaurants that we have downtown are already staples, citywide recognized, award-winning restaurants, so there’s room for both and we think it’s a great thing for our downtown, [and] a growing trend nationwide,” Kevin observed.
Not only do residents get to enjoy the improvements, but the people who come here for business reap the benefits as well. The first place that many people see are the streets around the Convention Center, where they might be attending an event or staying at a nearby hotel. This underlines the importance of the work that the DBDC is doing because this core area of our city represents who we are. As Cathy summated, “If you have a strong heart, you have a healthy community. And we are the heart of our city.”
Also positioned in the heart of California, Bakersfield has much to gain from being home to a high-speed rail station. The California High-Speed Rail Authority and the City are working in partnership on The HSR Station Area Plan, which will help define the area for generations to come. From the survey, “they’re planning on coming up with three to five different goals that are the top issues we could address that would help to strengthen the downtown area. So, we’re excited to hear about that and start rolling up our sleeves and working towards whatever goals come from this survey,” Cathy said. The DBDC is acutely aware of how important this plan is to the future of our city and with the potential influx of people from the high-speed rail station, now it is more important than ever to revitalize downtown and make it feel as welcoming as our city and residents truly are. CR