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Our View: Auburn must get real to win business

Our View
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The city of Auburn is taking small steps to improve the shopping experience in Downtown and Old Town. The million-dollar Streetscape revitalization effort is worthwhile and a step in the right direction, but there is so much more that could be done to make Auburn a tourist and shopping destination. The recent brouhaha over the color of umbrellas in front of Tango frozen yogurt shop was a little silly, but underscores some misplaced priorities. After all, what real difference does it make if two Downtown umbrellas are orange or green? Yes, the planning commission did the right thing by allowing the orange umbrellas to remain and Tango owner Lisa Swisley deserves praise for opening a destination shop Downtown. The problem is, Downtown and Old Town’s needs are far greater than a couple of umbrellas. The Auburn area is full of families with children. During this summertime back-to-school shopping opportunity, where within the city limits is there for mothers and fathers to take their children to buy school clothes? Where do you buy men’s clothing in the city? From sports equipment to linens and towels … the list of what isn’t available is large. The choices are limited. Therefore, many Auburn families will head to the Roseville Galleria mall to shop, even if they would rather support Auburn stores. On the weekends, too often Downtown looks like a ghost town. Even with orange umbrellas and a $1.2 million Streetscape project, not nearly enough cars are pulling off the freeway full of tourists or locals ready to spend a few hours shopping in the city. Changing that dynamic is going to take a much greater vision and effort. While the city has embraced its Endurance Capital of the World theme, and rightfully supports the Think Auburn First and buy-local mentality, it has done a less-than-stellar job recruiting businesses that meet residents’ shopping needs. That’s the big picture, which calls for a sense of urgency from city planners, the economic development commission, chamber of commerce and business organizations. Auburn needs to develop and implement a strategic plan to identify what stores residents want, and vacant lots, buildings for rent, and open commercial space where targeted new businesses that would meet residents’ and tourists’ shopping desires could locate. Auburn must market itself to prospective businesses and offer attractive incentives to recruit them. The City Council has directed City Manager Robert Richardson to focus on other areas, rather than economic development. Now might be a good time for his priorities to be readdressed, because Auburn no doubt has capable leader in Richardson. Although the city is financially strong, the need to plan now for the future is great and the Streetscape project and the Think Auburn First campaign have created a strong momentum. The city isn’t in it alone, either. The Old Town and Downtown business associations and Chamber of Commerce have a lot of local talent and can and are helping. But the natural selection process that seems to be the city’s business marketing plan is painfully slow. There are several places in the city where you can get a piercing or tattoo, but nowhere to shop for back-to-school clothes. Is the ideal anchor store in our successful Downtown corridor really a pawnshop with bars on the windows when it’s closed? When the city does have successful events, such as the Auburn Cruise Nites or recent Amgen bike race promotion, where Downtown should visitors go to use a restroom? Are port-a-potties a desirable option? They don’t exactly exude a welcoming atmosphere, especially for women. There have been some great individual efforts among business leaders to take Auburn to the next level. The State Theater restoration is an attractive addition as are building owner Viola Wrigley’s beautification projects. There needs to be a greater emphasis and sense of urgency from the city, however, to identify potential businesses that residents and tourists want. And, the city should work with the chamber and business associations to create a strategic marketing plan that identifies available locations and offers incentives. A comprehensive zoning plan must be developed that attracts retail businesses to locate in prime retail locations and disallows businesses that detract from the city’s ambience. The Streetscape project should be seen as a positive beginning. But rather than wait for the natural selection process, Auburn needs to aggressively market itself and create incentives to attract needed retailers if we are ever going to see our business districts truly thrive.