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Saving Downtown Santa Barbara with Consultants

City Hires Private Firm to Craft Strategic Plan

630 State Street
Paul Wellman

In response to downtown’s protracted retail woes, the Santa Barbara City Council voted to spend $84,000 to hire a private economic consulting firm, Kosmont & Associates, to help craft a strategic plan to bring local shoppers to the central business district. Previous studies have repeatedly concluded that downtown retailers have come to rely too heavily on the tourist dollar and not enough on local needs. Accordingly, Kosmont is expected to draft plans to “shift the tenant mix towards the needs of residents and provide guidance for property owners and brokers to select optimal tenants.” In recent years, City Hall has heard some business leaders call for blocking off parts or all of State Street to vehicle traffic. Kosmont will examine “a shift toward a pedestrian mall design to ensure a quality pedestrian-focused experience.”

To these ends, Kosmont will study resident spending patterns, “spending leakage,” and how existing business organizations and business improvement districts have responded to State Street’s problems. The Chamber of Commerce has been notably absent from the public debate — its CEO Ken Oplinger just announced his retirement — and Downtown Santa Barbara, which represents downtown retailers, went a year with no chief executive. The consulting firm will also examine how city permitting and signage rules impact local businesses.

The funds to hire Kosmont — one of five companies to compete for the contract — will come from unspent revenues otherwise budgeted for the Santa Barbara Police Department, available because of vacant positions. In the meantime, some of State Street’s dominant property owners — like Richard Berti — have announced plans to hire former mayor Hal Conklin to help recruit new businesses to Santa Barbara, act as an ombudsperson within City Hall to facilitate permit applications, and be a regulatory guide dog. Conklin said hiring the consultant was a good idea, “but will only get them started.” He said the problem was too broad to be solved by City Hall alone.

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