With a 13% commercial vacancy rate downtown, the city of Santa Barbara is poised to create a “City Hall Strategic Plan” for revitalizing business.
Economic Development Manager Jason Harris said he wants to cultivate a business-friendly City Hall, support creation and expansion of businesses and jobs, and return downtown to a hub of retail, entertainment and culture.
Among the other goals, Harris said at last Tuesday’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting, is to increase the city’s tax base and enhance the area’s quality of life.
The plan would cover the years of 2021 through 2024, Harris said, adding that he will present more details at a future meeting.
“The Chamber is energetically building a relationship with the city of Santa Barbara and Jason Harris in the Economic Development department,” said Kristen Miller, president/CEO of the Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce. “As the work begins on an economic development strategic plan for the city, we will be meeting and sharing information to help make it successful.
Likewise the Chamber is embarking on a Roadmap to Recovery plan and will be including Mr. Harris in efforts to design a business support program that addresses economic recovery.”
Harris did mention one idea is to create a “Buy Local” program to keep taxes local and “minimize the amount of Amazon purchases online.”
The goal is to attract smaller, local businesses, and support them.
“This isn’t necessarily looking to bring new, large employers to the area,” Harris said. “This community for the most part is built out. This is about filling the gaps.”
Santa Barbara has been under pressure for several years to reduce the commercial vacancy rate on State Street, and streamline its permitting process to allow new businesses to open.
Several outside consultant reports have stated that City Hall is not business-friendly. Harris’s position evolved from a consultant’s report that recommended the city hire an economic development director to focus solely on boosting business.
However, Harris came on board just as COVID-19 hit, which further exacerbated business problems.
A vacant retail space on State Street in Santa Barbara. With a 13% commercial vacancy rate downtown, the city is poised to create a strategic plan for revitalizing business. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)
He also said there’s a need to improve business-permit processing and create new paths of dialogue.
“How can the city broadly improve our working relationship with the business community?” he said, describing one of his goals.
Harris mentioned the Paseo Nuevo mall, and the two anchor buildings of Nordstrom and the Ortega Building.
“Imagine the possibilities,” Harris said. “The city is not directly controlling those properties, but those could be potential locations for business activity. They could also be housing.”
City Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez pushed Harris to develop a plan for other business areas as well.
“It’s critical to develop a citywide plan because Santa Barbara is not just the downtown area,” Gutierrez said. “We have many local businesses that need our support to strive, especially during this unprecedented pandemic. Once the businesses thrive, they will start to create job opportunities, which will then strengthen our local economy.”
Councilwoman Meagan Harmon said she is looking forward to a more aggressive approach to business revitalization.
“Though Mr. Harris has done a great job pivoting to provide support for our local businesses in response to urgent COVID conditions, I am very excited to be getting back to the work of creating a long-term, actionable strategic plan to ensure the economic vitality of our city,” Harmon said.
She added that implementing the plan is at the heart of what the city brought Harris on to do.
“In my view, our focus must be on prioritizing the city’s business-friendly fundamentals,” Harmon said. “We can’t change macro-level market conditions. Retail, for example, is a sector that is evolving nationally, but we can create a municipal landscape that supports small business success.”
She said she wants to streamline the approval process, eliminate unnecessary fees, and harness the marketing and communications power of the city to help business.
“We have a long way to go, but we are committed to ensuring a bright future for business in Santa Barbara,” Harmon said.