A successful State Street retailer and a big-brained branding expert have teamed up to form the Santa Barbara Economic Development Partnership. Their simple-sounding yet incredibly critical goal is to recruit and retain downtown businesses, a piece of strategy largely missing from the city’s efforts to revitalize its commercial core.
Amy Cooper, who for 10 years operated the popular Plum Goods store until it was laid low by the coronavirus, and Keith Higbee, a managing partner of a major marketing firm, say the new initiative will address with pinpoint precision State Street’s vacancy crisis ― which was at red-alert levels even before the pandemic ― as the city leaders continue down the much longer path of rebuilding infrastructure and developing housing.
“If we wait, our vacancy rate is going to go up from 17 percent to 20 percent, 30 percent, and that’s a whole different conversation,” warned Higbee. “We’ll start heading toward Detroit.”
“We need to repopulate with intention,” continued Cooper. “We need to ask: ‘What is Santa Barbara’s brand? What do we stand for? What’s special about us? How are we different from Ventura and San Luis Obispo, and how do we recruit for that?’ Keith has the process, and I have the connections and the ability to find out who’s growing and who wants to be here. I say it half-jokingly, but it’s true ― he’s the science and I’m the art.”
The public-private partnership has already garnered support ― and even more importantly, financial backing ― from the Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce. They also have the endorsements of Visit Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Better Together Fund, and the city itself. While the city did recently hire Jason Harris as its new economic development director, “He’s just one person,” Cooper explained, and she and Higbee intend to do what they can to help him usher businesses through the city’s tricky permitting process.
A key component of the initiative, the two explained, is taking the many macro-level studies that have been done on State Street’s problems and potential, combining them with similar reports from other cities, and synthesizing all that information into a convincing sales package for companies to invest in Santa Barbara. “It’s giving businesses the confidence that if they come to Santa Barbara, they will thrive,” said Higbee. “It’s showing them that Santa Barbara isn’t just a pretty place with 92,000 people. It has the right density, the right psychographics, the right demographics, and so on.”
Those businesses may include larger companies looking to expand, local owners wanting a new or second location, and especially young entrepreneurs with bold ideas to bring locals and vibrancy back to State Street. As an example, Cooper mentioned an exciting new venture at the former Samy’s Camera. Diana Pereira, one of the founders of Impact Hub (now called Kiva Cowork), has combined forces with Chris Chiarappa of Mesa Burger to launch Kitchen 530, a shared commercial kitchen and restaurant that marries the co-working concept with food and drink. “It’s a really cool project,” said Cooper.
Matching businesses with storefronts requires a block-by-block understanding of the downtown ecosystem, knowledge that Cooper and Higbee already possess in spades and are digging even deeper into. They’re studying over 2,000 different businesses, both regionally and nationally, to decide to whom they’ll pitch. They’re also in conversations with local property owners and commercial brokers about space openings and other helpful insights to get leases signed as soon as possible.
Higbee acknowledges that the picture at the moment is grim. It feels like every day, another retailer goes under. But that’s why it’s so important to be proactive now, he said. To target and go after the businesses that have what shoppers crave (and can afford) and would prosper in return. Santa Barbara is ripe for reinvestment, he stressed. “We’ve got Amazon. We’ve got LinkedIn. We’ve got a growing airport that’s bringing Delta back. We’re rich with opportunity.”
You can reach the Santa Barbara Economic Development Partnership at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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