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Another View: Revitalizing our downtown

By: Carol Garcia and Susan Rohan, Roseville City Council
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Our community was dealt a blow last month with the untimely death of downtown pioneer Steve Pease and the closing of Sammy’s Rockin’ Island Bar & Grill. Although this has been a shock, the City Council’s commitment to a vibrant downtown remains as strong as ever.

This commitment traces to the mid-1980s, when the City Council made the strategic decision to keep City Hall and city offices on Vernon Street instead of moving out of downtown. Twenty years later, a 26-member steering committee comprising citizens and business owners developed a common vision for our downtown through a multi-year process of public forums and meetings.

This effort produced the Downtown Specific Plan, which the City Council adopted in 2008 as our blueprint for development. The city identified resources, including tax-increment funding from the Roseville Redevelopment Agency and the city’s Strategic Improvement Fund, to construct future public improvements. Based on the specific plan, infrastructure was upgraded, streetscapes were enhanced and the town square was completed.

In 2010, the City Council took the strategic step of establishing the Roseville Community Development Corporation, a private nonprofit 501c(3), with the purpose of expanding private and public investment in downtown Roseville. For those interested, all of the corporation’s meetings are open to the public and its agendas, minutes and other documents are posted at rosevillecdc.com. It conducts an annual audit and provides updates at City Council meetings on its activities, as well.

This action ensured the community had an investment mechanism in place to drive downtown revitalization. And it was timely indeed, since the state dissolved redevelopment agencies the following year, resulting in a loss of an estimated $70 million the Downtown Specific Plan had identified to fund future capital improvement projects between 2007 and 2017.

To establish the RCDC, the City Council loaned what the development world would consider a modest sum of $5 million from the city’s Strategic Improvement Fund. These are one-time monies set aside for investment opportunities, meaning they don’t fund ongoing operational expenses. The all-volunteer board of private-sector business leaders has the expertise in real estate and financing to engage in the kinds of strategic transactions that attract private investment and jobs to Roseville.

The loss of redevelopment funds has been a significant setback, making the role of the RCDC even more critical to downtown’s success. While this is a relatively new tool to our community, the RCDC is based on a model used successfully since the 1950s as cities throughout the nation sought to create jobs, revitalize and modernize after World War II.

Development corporations fill a critical gap between what the public sector can do and what the private sector is willing to do by forming public-private partnerships and offering development funding options that include federal and state grants, tax credits and tax-exempt financing. Cities using this approach include Philadelphia, New York, Portland and San Diego, where the development corporation transformed a rundown Gaslamp Quarter into a vibrant, sought-after urban destination.

It is this success, on a smaller scale, that inspires us. The RCDC has assisted in the renovation of a building that sat vacant for seven years on Vernon Street. This transformation of the J.C. Penney building into the site for Sammy’s helped jumpstart an active restaurant and entertainment use in the heart of downtown. This type of use and venue is what the citizen group that created the Downtown Specific Plan had in mind.

Transformations succeed with the right mix of innovation, expertise and tenacity. As our community grows, our unwavering commitment to downtown’s success takes on a new importance. We’ve seen private investment follow public investment throughout our downtown. We anticipate reaching more milestones, given the intensity of unsolicited interest in reopening the restaurant on Vernon Street.

This month, with thousands of people attending events in the Vernon Street Town Square in the days leading up to the city’s tree-lighting celebration, we know our downtown is gaining momentum. Vibrant downtowns attract people, and the enthusiasm we’ve seen creates community moments that epitomize the vision for our downtown.