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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, March 25, 2013, 5:40 am

Showcasing San Rafael for business in a lean-budget environment

Loss of redevelopment funds spurs city, business groups to innovate

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    Marin County’s largest city and civic hub, San Rafael, wants to boost its appeal as a commercial center, and a number of interrelated local government and business group efforts are in motion with the goal of making that happen.

    A key motivator for this is Sacramento’s dissolution of redevelopment agencies in San Rafael and in more than 400 other locales statewide in February 2012. Downtown San Rafael Business Improvement District lost $13,000 in annual redevelopment dollars, and the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce, about $40,000 a year, according to Stephanie Lovette, economic development manager. Both were handling business retention and attraction functions for the agency.

    “The BID and chamber are stepping up,” she said. Winding down of the agency has taken her time away from those functions and trimmed funds available for events and infrastructure improvements. Yet, the city has started a search for a full-time economic development specialist in business retention and recruitment as well as an administrative assistant for that department.

    Nancy Mackie

    Retaining businesses and attracting new ones will be part of a by presentation by San Rafael City Manager Nancy Mackle at the Business Journal‘s 2013 Impact Marin conference on April 3. Two recent successes for the city on those fronts have been helping to keep personal care items maker EO Products in Marin and attracting BioMarin Pharmaceutical’s 400-employee headquarters to the downtown area.

    In danger of folding after the current and looming loss of nearly three-quarters of its funding, the 33-year-old business improvement district on Tuesday officially proposed to the City Council its plan to restructure as a new nonprofit organization, expand its geographic area by several blocks and add more than 500 businesses to the assessment roll.

    Carol Thompson

    “The BID is taking the step toward more like a business would find in a mall, in getting security, promotions, marketing, parking and foot traffic,” said Carol Thompson, district director since August. “Businesses locate here because they do not want to be in a mall, but they do not get those services.”

    “Clean and safe” is the focus of many BIDs in the Bay Area and nationwide, and that’s the direction the reorganized San Rafael district wants to take, she said. Other focus areas are increased branding of the downtown area, balancing the mix of downtown businesses to have more that attract foot traffic and creating more events that do likewise.

    Meanwhile, the chamber has been adapting joint business interviews done together with city economic development staff for more than a decade to the reality of less city staff time currently available for such interviews, according to Rick Wells, chamber president and chief executive officer.

    Rick Wells

    “These days, it’s all about making sure we’re maximizing limited resources,” he said.

    The city manager’s office and the chamber still are working together to keep and attract businesses, but the chamber’s Economic Vitality Committee is filling in the intelligence gaps on business needs that had been gleaned through the interviews. The committee has mustered volunteers to interview and survey businesses.

    The chamber also has had initial meetings with the BID and Marin Economic Forum to build a year-end report from responses to the standardized survey on business needs as well as how businesses downtown interact with those elsewhere.

    A test survey of 1,110 chamber members gleaned 60 responses useful for a survey baseline, Mr. Wells said. Highlights from the survey is that San Rafael is a desirable place for business but key concerns are streamlining the city permitting process to reduce the time and cost of opening or expanding as well as improving the safety and positive reputation of downtown.

    Timely permitting also was something city officials heard from talks with commercial real estate brokerages, according to Stephanie Lovette, city economic development manager. Other key impediments to business activity they expressed were delays in obtaining Marin County health permits for foodservice operations, which also delays issuance of city occupancy permits, and high fees from Marin Municipal Water District for new standby fire sprinkler water lines required under building code changes a couple of years ago. Those are matters matters outside the city’s control, and county staff also is short-handed, she said.

    The water district board hasn’t revisited the standby-line issue because it charges a lower cost-recovery service charge for a standby fire line it supplies with water around the clock as for a same-sized standard meter, according to spokeswoman Libby Pischel. For example, a standard meter bimonthly charge for a 2-inch-diameter water line is $82.85, while the same-sized meter for a fire line is $27.52. And, the district doesn’t charge tiered water rates if standby lines are tapped during a fire, she added.

    “The city has proven themselves receptive to suggests and interested in facilitating business and recognizing the importance of economic vitality to the overall health of the community,” Mr. Wells said.

    The city two years ago, as the economic recession sent commercial property vacancies soaring and trimmed Community Development staff by three positions, revised zoning rules to eliminate certain discretionary review steps to speed analysis of projects and reduce staff time, according to Paul Jensen, department director.

    “We’re going through a second round of changes to the Zoning Ordinance to reduce some level of discretionary review of planning permits to be business-friendly and reduce workload,” he said. Draft changes are set to be released in about two months.

    The business improvement district on Tuesday presented a proposal to the City Council to expand the district area, encompassing five times more businesses and boosting available funds from about $58,000 a year to $100,175. That will be important because, the district learned recently that it will lose another $30,000 a year in revenue from a Lindaro Street parking lot between Second and Third streets. Property owner Pacific Gas & Electric plans to find a developer for the three-acre site in the next couple of years.

    The first public hearing is set for May 6, then the City Council will decide whether it proceeds.

    “We want to bring the shine back to downtown and think businesses are waiting for that to happen,” Ms. Thompson said. “People love downtown San Rafael, but right now it needs a little support.”

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