By Mark Carlisle, YourValley.net
If Glendale’s going to spend money on its downtown, it should spend it smarter.
That’s the view of City Manager Kevin Phelps. One way the city has tried to so is hire the Glendale Chamber of Commerce as downtown manager, a venture that Mr. Phelps and City Council both say has gone well through its first year and a half.
Jamie Aldama“For me, it’s been a great conduit between those who have needs, concerns, conduit to city staff, to the manager’s office,” said Ocotillo District Councilman Jamie Aldama, who represents downtown. “And I want to thank those merchants out there who agree and disagree, because that’s what makes a healthy conversation, but I agree there’s more cohesiveness going on in downtown, so I appreciate it.”
In 2017, the city evaluated businesses to manage its downtown and selected the Chamber of Commerce, which it signed to a five-year, $610,510 contract. The Chamber hired Katy Engels as its director of downtown development to head the effort in August 2017.
Katy EngelsAmong other accomplishments, Ms. Engels has assembled some downtown merchants into a strategic leadership advisory group. That group met this week to discuss ideas to improve downtown that the Chamber will propose to city staff in early February.
City officials hope the efforts of Ms. Engels the leadership group can revitalize town, which Mr. Phelps said is in “a state of decline.”
“(Downtown Glendale is) an underperforming retail area, with a lot of businesses that are working really hard but are struggling to make it,” he said.
Kevin PhelpsDowntown has not provided a good return on investment for the city. Mr. Phelps noted that Glendale spends about $1.3 million on its downtown each year, largely through marquee festivals such as Glendale Glitters, and receives about $300,000 back annually in sales tax revenues.
“That’s not economic development, that’s a gift,” Mr. Phelps said.
It’s not making downtown thrive, either. Mr. Phelps said there are more vacant storefronts in downtown now than there were three years ago, despite the city spending nearly $4 million on the region in that time span. Ms. Engels did note that more businesses have been added to subtracted to downtown in the last year.
With a large investment at Westgate Entertainment District, the vulnerable mall industry at the Arrowhead Towne Center and planned development between Loop 101 and Loop 303, the city has plenty of areas it could spend money. Those areas could give Glendale a better return on investment, too.
“I’m thinking there’s probably a lot of people sitting on the outside saying, ‘I think you would make a whole lot of money, that that $1.3 million might generate $4- or $5- or $6 million back to the city. Why aren’t you doing that?’” Mr. Phelps said, noting that it is a policy matter and therefore a Council decision.
The key, Mr. Phelps said, is to make sure whatever money is spent is spent wisely, improving downtown.
“I would rather look at it from this perspective: as long as we’re spending the money and getting positive outcomes, I think it’s a good investment,” Mr. Phelps said. “…We don’t want boarded up windows downtown. We don’t want buildings falling to disrepair. So, let’s continue to invest maybe a disproportionate amount of money in our downtown, and I’m OK with that. What I’m not OK (with), is just continuing to invest $1.3 million (each year) and getting the type of results that we have gotten over the last few years.”
Ms. Engels said some merchants of downtown, which has been ruled largely by antique shops in past years, had been resistant to her as downtown manager.
“I think people don’t like change and there are a lot of people who are very passionate, like I said, who don’t want change, who want to keep everything quaint, they want to keep (it) the way it was. But it’s not sustainable the way it has been. A lot of people are just like, ‘I’m barely making it,” Ms. Engels said. Other business owners, she noted, have closed their doors.
In her first year and a half, Ms. Engels duties have included holding monthly meetings with downtown business and property owners and residents, creating a database of contact information for the entire downtown, helping clean up downtown, improving communication between merchants, marketing downtown, establishing merchant committees and serving as a liaison between downtown merchants and the city.
Much of the early efforts have been attempting to work with the merchants to produce a shared vision for downtown. While there has been disagreement among merchants on how to change or whether to change, the leadership group hopes to set forth a plan that will revitalize the area.
“It’s more important to get us all on the same page, in the same direction with how we want downtown to go and how we want to present it,” said leadership group member Yvonne Knaack, who is a State Farm insurance agent downtown, a former Glendale city councilwoman and vice mayor and a former chairwoman of the board of the Glendale Chamber.
One idea the group has had, according Ms. Knaack is to add more promotions and special events to the downtown schedule to give shoppers and diners reason to come to downtown more often.
Mr. Phelps said he presented the idea to the leadership group when he met with them.
Mr. Phelps had proposed a major revamping of downtown life in which the city would spend $4 million on revamping the downtown Amphitheatre to create a better performance venue and shift downtown event spending from a focus on about 14 days a year of large events to 150-200 days of small events throughout the year. Redistributing these funds would mean canceling long-established events such as the Glendale Glitters Christmas lights showcase and the Chocolate Affaire in February.
“This is not about tweaking a strategy… It’s about a major rewrite of where we’re going,” Mr. Phelps said.
The event schedule will avoid a major rewrite for now. Mr. Phelps proposal was met with pushback from both downtown merchants and some former city officials, whom he said contacted him to speak to the importance of events like Glendale Glitters.
Mr. Phelps “waved the white flag” and sent a letter to City Council in November informing them he is not planning the proposed changes for his fiscal year 2020 budget.
Still, some small promotions and events will likely be added to the schedule, said Ms. Engels and Ms. Knaack.
Ms. Engels said her long-term vision for downtown was to have visitors come more frequently, and to draw them in with smaller entertainment events such as live music.
“I think we’ll have that sustainability, that there will be people here more than just on the holidays and festivals, that there will be experiences for people to come here on a regular basis, so when they think of going out to eat, they don’t just think of Arrowhead and Westgate right away. ‘Hey, let’s go downtown!’” Ms. Engels said.
Another newly-formed downtown group, the Historic Glendale Downtown Merchants Association, which was formed in July, has also sought to better market downtown Glendale. A new event it created last fall was Small Business Saturday.
Lorraine ZomokThe association’s president, Lorraine Zomok, said the group is not meant to rival the Chamber’s downtown revitalization efforts but that the groups can work together.
“We know that downtown Glendale is a true treasure. And it’s our role to collaborate with everyone and every organization for the betterment of our downtown,” said Ms. Zomok, who owns Memory Lane Trinkets and Treasures and is a member of the Glendale Women’s Club.
Mr. Phelps has pitched another way to make downtown Glendale a destination.
“If you live 10 miles from here, is there enough there there to have you get in your car and drive here?” he asked.
The city manager has suggested moving the Velma Teague Branch Library from the center of Murphy Park in downtown to the vacant sugar beet museum at 51st and Glendale avenues, upgrading and possibly expanding the library in the process. One or two restaurants could then replace the library as the centerpiece of downtown in Murphy Park. Mr. Phelps suggested Postino, Pizzeria Bianco or Four Peaks Brewing Company as possibilities, saying an attractive new restaurant would provide a boost to the surrounding restaurants and shops.
Ms. Knaack, of the strategic leadership advisory group, said changes will come to downtown soon.
“We’re going to get something going fast,” she said. “This is not planning for the next two years. It’s planning for the future, for sure, next five, 10 years. But right now we’ve got to get something off the ground and get it moving to show people that we’re serious, that we want something to happen down here.”