By Nao Braverman
The weekend traffic in downtown Ojai is proof enough that the small city is still a popular getaway. But where are all these tourists shopping? Not in Ojai, or at least not enough.
The abandoned storefronts speak for themselves.
“What you are seeing is a reflection of the economy,” said Ernie Salomon, owner of the Matilija Plaza Group, which includes two commercial vacancies in the Arcade. “From what I have heard a lot of businesses are having a hard time in Ojai. Gas is heading to $4 a gallon. People are not out to buy jewelry when they can’t buy bread.”
As visitors get off the freeway they are greeted by two abandoned gas stations on their way to Ojai’s center. After hitting a decrepit cement block structure next to the Skate Park, which has remained unoccupied for years, tourists pass the vacant space where Jim and Rob’s Fresh Grill used to be. A little farther down is the old bowling alley, empty for years, warding off passersby with a chain link fence.
While the Arcade storefronts facing Ojai Avenue are fully occupied, the strip that faces Matilija Street has taken on a glassy-eyed vacant stare.
Of the 140,204 square feet in the Arcade Plaza district, the block of commercial buildings sandwiched by Ojai Avenue, Matilija Street, Signal Street and Montgomery Street, about 8,779 square feet are currently up for lease.
That includes the former Iron Pan Bistro, which has housed several eateries that have failed successively, the large space right next door, which used to house Ojai Sports, an office space upstairs from Radio Shack next to Cornerstone Architects, the former homebase of Linda.com, and the space next to Java & Joe’s that narrowly escaped becoming a Subway sandwich shop.
Some of the longtime commercial vacancies have been leased or purchased. The abandoned Ford dealership, also at the city’s entryway, was sold to the Crown Family, owners of the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, to protect the space for unsightly development. The newer of the two vacant buildings is being rented out to various companies to host business conventions.
Salomon said that he had a tenant lined up for the property that was to house Subway, and that he was deciding between two tenants interested in the former Linda.com space. He was not ready to reveal any information about the prospects, however.
As soon as The Hub, the bar vacant for some time right in the center of downtown, was finally remodeled and opened again by new owners, vacancies popped up elsewhere in town. The space that recently housed Campsite, in the new shopping center at the corner of Ojai Avenue and Cañada Street is already gone, soon to be replaced by another business, according to property owner Ron Polito. But the quick turnover rates for commercial properties are clear evidence of how local merchants are struggling.
The year-end budget review revealed that sales tax revenues were indeed coming in less than expected. The May issue of the Ojai Business Journal, published by the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce, showed that between Nov. 12, 2007 and Feb. 14 of this year, the city collected $191,999 in sales tax revenue — an 11 percent decline from the same period a year ago, which represents about $2 million less in total taxable sales for local merchants over that three-month period.
City manager Jere Kersnar said that some citizens have expressed the concern that Ojai is overbuilt, but he wasn’t sure that was the crux of the problem.
Salomon attributed the vacancies to nationwide economic woes. But Polito said he thought it was an issue more specific to Ojai. He said that local merchants weren’t sure if they were catering to residents or tourists, and this posed a challenge to business owners who weren’t sure who to market to.
“Ojai has not defined itself,” he said. “Are we a tourist community or are we a homegrown bedroom community that supports itself? Right now we are not either of the two.”
According to Polito. Ojai is not developed enough to cater to really wealthy tourists, or at least to survive off of tourism. Yet it also does not provide an environment that is affordable enough for locals to work and shop in.
People can’t find jobs in Ojai, so they are leaving the area. And those who are able to live in Ojai, shop elsewhere, he said.
Scott Eicher, chief executive officer of the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce, said he thought Ojai was capable of catering to both tourists and residents, and needs to do so to survive.
“It is a question of balance,” he said. “Tourism is the primary source of revenue for the city’s general fund. Local businesses cannot survive on tourism alone. If the majority of our local businesses close, there will be nothing to attract the tourists. Therefore the key is to develop a balanced economy that serves residents and tourists alike.”
While the Ojai Valley Inn, the city’s biggest revenue source is doing better than expected, raising the bed tax revenues for the city, its customers are likely shopping less often outside of the inn’s grounds, as evidenced by the drop in sales tax.
Meanwhile The Ojai Valley Shopping Center at the “Y” intersection, which, with a Vons grocery store, a pharmacy and two banks, caters more to locals than tourists, has almost no vacancies at all. The only exception is an office space above Washington Mutual Bank which has no visible storefront.
One anonymous real estate agent attributed the vacancies to expensive rent. Polito said that part of the problem was the run-down state of some of spaces for lease.
Some of the longtime vacancies are site specific. The former Roland Exxon Station on Ojai Avenue remained vacant for about 10 years, since contamination from a leaking gas tank was discovered beneath the property. The old bowling alley, also a 10-year eyesore, was set aside by its Louisiana-based owner after a ground water issue deemed the structure a health and safety hazard. The abandoned shell near the Skate Park, once Video Adventures, also appears as if it has been left to rot. The Texaco station, however, now mostly cleaned up, was purchased by Meyerstein Trust in November 2007 and is getting a remodel soon, hopefully attracting a tenant.
Nonetheless the failing businesses seem to be a combination of factors, according to Eicher. Nationwide economic trends are part of the problem. In addition, merchants are having difficulty catering to Ojai’s complex consumer demographic, according to Polito.
Eicher said that the chamber and the city were working together to address the issue but said he wasn’t ready to ready to give any details of this effort at this time.
By Nao Braverman