Turnaround town

A former Gold Rush outpost reinvigorates its downtown, and revives itsfortunes

By 6 p.m. all the cars are gone from Mill Street. Out come boxes of fresh peaches, apricots, strawberries, string beans, and tomatoes to be placed on farm-stand tables.

It's a warm Friday night in this former Gold Rush town of 9,500, and the superfriendly, G-rated, Grass Valley Friday Market and Street Festival is under way. Overhead, a fingernail moon looks down from a dark blue sky.

Merchants - booksellers, dressmakers, antique dealers, jewelers, craft artists, a cotton-candy maker - are on the street with goods on display, and the band Free Association plays live music.

At street level this looks like a casually organized small-town festival of commerce and community. But in fact it is the evidence of life-saving decisions made 20 years years ago to revitalize a historic downtown area that was about as inviting as stale bread.

"It's amazing what has happened in Grass Valley in the last five years, much less the last 20 years," says Jim Beitz, who lived here as a child and owns a jewelry store on Mill Street. "I wouldn't live any other place."

Awakening to its potential

Grass Valley has been so successful in remaking itself that in l997, Time magazine declared the town to be one of the Top 10 best places to live in America.

What Grass Valley did in l986, after a department store pulled out of a deflated downtown area already experiencing increased vacancies, was to adopt techniques and concepts for revitalization developed by the National Main Street Center (NMSC) of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington.

NMSC, operating as the umbrella organization for agencies in 45 states, has been largely responsible for the national trend of helping small-town America awaken to its old-new potential.

"Ten years ago 400, towns were involved in the Main Street program," says Amanda West, program director for the NMSC. "Today we have over 1,300 communities using some aspect of the program."

The heart of the program lies in a town's ability to master four elements: encouraging economic restructuring, organizing the community to ensure innovation, improving design in the downtown area, and promoting of a new or stronger image of the town. The result of this incremental process, linked to a community's zest for change, can be a prosperous downtown area. It also means new jobs and being competitive in the face of nearby malls.

In the old Union Building on Mill Street, Teri Paulus plops down some documents on her desk that are key resources for her as executive director of the Grass Valley Downtown Association (GVDA).

"This is a four-point networking library from the state Main Street Program," she says of a report, "which gives me people to contact about all the projects done by other Main Street communities around the country." There is a companion "tool book catalog," providing technical assistance from the California Main Street Program.

Like directors in other small towns, Ms. Paulus is an e-mail, fax, videotape, or phone call away from knowing the organizing details of how another town did a beautification project, saved a historic building, conducted a business survey, or transformed an old movie theater.

But in the final analysis, the town is on its own. "The people who are involved are usually ones who have been in a town a long time," says Ms. West. "The Main Street program doesn't tell them what to do. They live or die on their own effort."

Paulus reports to an all-volunteer, nine-member board of directors representing 235 dues-paying members. In a periodic newsletter, she includes success stories from other towns and progress reports. Cooperating with town government means GVDA can move swiftly when issues arise or funds become available.

Successful and continuing promotions over the years include a series of Friday night farmers' markets, several weekends of Cornish Christmas celebrations to connect with the historic miners from Cornwall, England, who lived and worked in the gold mines around Grass Valley. Other promotions that bring people downtown include a Good Old Days Car Show, a Festival of the Arts, the annual Fourth of July parade, and other events.

"The town looks as complete as it has ever looked," says Bill Peterson, owner of Hedman Furniture. In 1993 Mr. Peterson briefly considered moving his successful business out of the downtown area, but made a commitment to stay. "The success of the downtown area working as a team is contagious to the community," he says.

Football star helps raise money

At the point where Mill Street "T's" into Main Street, GVDA wanted to erect an old-style Victorian clock with a time capsule near it. As part of the overall beautification of the street - new brick planters, benches, and brick crosswalks - the clock had a hefty price tag of $30,000.

GVDA spearheaded the project, which included connecting with football star Joe Montana's visit to the county fair to sign autographs and throw passes. The two local high schools raffled off tickets at $5 for two chances to catch a Montana pass and raised several thousand dollars. The rest of the money came from various sources, and the city gave the final $5,500 to purchase the clock.

As outreach to store owners, the GVDA offers such assistance as merchandise-display seminars, welcome packages to new businesses, and advertising workshops, and helps with ideas on reaching regular customers and tourists.

A year-and-a-half ago it worked with the city in offering popular low-interest loans between $5,000 and $10,000 to businesses to improve faades on Main Street.

Many now have faades with a colorful but tasteful Gold Rush look and handsome signs. "Because the street is in the historic district," says Gary Price, Grass Valley city planner, "everything is subject to design and review board approval. We're proactive with any applicant's design and work with them before it's official."

The result of this collaborative effort over 13 years, according to GVDA statistics, is a net gain of 66 businesses and 298 jobs. First-floor vacancy downtown has dropped from 15 percent to 1 percent, and GVDA says a total of 186 private design projects with a value of $3.6 million have been added to the community.

If there is a downside to Grass Valley's success, it lies in the trend of increased housing costs.

"My own kids can't afford to live here," says Mr. Beitz. "People sell their houses in the Bay area, get enormous sums, and come up here and buy. It pushes the price of homes up, and young couples are squeezed out of the market."

A growing number of people choose Grass Valley for the quality of life, and commute to jobs an hour away in Sacramento.

"I think there are emotional and psychological reasons why people are coming back to downtown and historic commercial districts," says Keith Kjelstrom, California state coordinator of the Main Street Program.

"We want to get away from the sense of alienation we feel when we try to find the cheapest bulk goods at a major discounter. There is more to life than that, more to being a citizen, and a historic downtown area is a livable community where people can connect and raise the overall quality of life."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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