In response to several businesses that have exited Lincoln Avenue this past year, the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce is putting into action a few the ideas to bring more foot traffic and businesses to town. Those ideas include forming a steering committee, beautification projects, targeting Sonoma County Airport, and digital pedestrian counters.
Chamber Executive Director Troy Campbell has been on the job since October. He’s had a chance to meet with many members of the community and colleagues farther down the Valley.
“At this time I think there’s a lot of anxiety about open storefronts. Rightfully so, because it does have a psychological impact on residents and visitors. Even though there have been many different reasons why stores have closed, perception is everything. And the perception is ‘this town has a lot of empty storefronts, what happened here, what’s the problem?’” Campbell said.
A recent problem
Carol Bush has owned and operated North Star, a women’s fashion store, on Lincoln Avenue for 38 years.
There are a few long-time businesses still around, but she said the turnover in businesses has started recently.
Bush noticed business starting to fall off in 2016, when it was off by about 25 percent and has pretty much stayed that way, she said.
The first big impact was Internet shopping, “And it hit all at once and I didn’t see it coming. We have the same hours, employees, nothing changed except a drop (in business),” she said.
Bush said people now come into the shop, look at an item, take a photo with their phone, “And tell me to my face they’re going to go home and look it up on the Internet. I mean, I know you’re going to do that anyway, but do you have to tell me?”
A lot of the issues facing Calistoga are not unique to Calistoga, Campbell said, they’re happening in San Francisco, and across the state. Issues like work force development, transportation, housing, “Those things are happening everywhere,” he said.
Prior to coming to Calistoga, Campbell was the executive director at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. The good news is, “There’s nothing here that’s super-broken. There are so many great ideas, and people that really love this community and really want to see it thrive. That’s all it needs. Right there, that’s the foundation to get this thing rolling,” he said.
The chamber is currently in the process of developing a steering committee made up of business and property owners, wineries and tasting rooms, and lodging facilities. The idea is to create a forum for vetting ideas that could gather support.
“Having a business leave is never a good thing. But it also presents an opportunity. It’s about bringing everyone together and saying what kind of businesses do we need? What kinds of businesses would make sense for both visitors and community members?” Campbell said.
By talking with hotels, for example, the committee can find out what kind of stores and businesses guests are asking for.
It’s also about working with brokerage companies to let them know about storefront openings.
“We can really trumpet when there are new developments, or events, and pass all that kind of knowledge along (to brokers), because that’s the kind of thing that would make someone want to invest or open a business in Calistoga,” Campbell said.
Although not every chamber member will be able to serve on the steering committee, surveys will be sent to all members for input.
Bush noted that the downtown area is looking a little “tired.”
“Downtown is the living room of Calistoga. It needs to be spruced up a bit. Whether its flowers on the vintage poles or repainting some of the storefronts, resurfacing the sidewalks so they are all uniform, and parklets are a great idea,” she said.
Campbell said he experienced great results from steering groups at Fisherman’s Wharf, where things started to happen in town right away.
“People were really getting excited about ideas and building on each other, and things were happening during the strategy. ‘Yeah, I really do need to take down this old awning and put up a new one…’ people were also sharing leads and prospects with contact information,” he said.
“It’s not about changing things, it’s about sanding off some of the rough edges, embellishing here and there. Replacing sidewalks, making sure things are well-lit at night, more greenery.”
Tom Pelter has owned and operated Calistoga Wine Stop, in the converted Train Depot on Lincoln Avenue for 33 years.
“Street front upkeep is important,” he said. “You also have to be open set hours and stick to them. It’s important. Otherwise you just irritate people (who want to shop there).”
Focus groups and policies
The chamber also will be conducting focus groups with residents and visitors, property owners and brokers to understand what they hear and see.
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“What are people who are interested in putting a shop in Calistoga saying? Are they worried about traffic? Not being able to hire anybody? The price? What can we address?” Campbell said.
And maybe city policies can be addressed.
“Are there any policies we can advocate for either adopting or changing, or finessing that might help a person start a business in Calistoga? We’ll be looking at what other communities are doing locally and nationwide,” Campbell said.
An example might be allowing pop-up businesses, like St. Helena is currently experimenting with.
Counting foot traffic
Bush said that county hospitality marketing efforts of late have emphasized overnight stays versus day trippers. That and raising wine-tasting rates has changed visitor demographics.
“During the day it’s pretty much retirement-age customers, and at night it’s a younger crowd. Foot traffic is dramatically down from what it used to be, period. I used to have 70 – 80 sales a day. Now if I have 10, it’s like a good day, but I also sold smaller things,” Bush said.
Slated for summer installation, Campbell wants to install digital cameras to count of the amount of pedestrians on Lincoln Avenue.
“Sometimes, with businesses and events (like a sidewalk sale), it’s hard to know if it was really successful. Did it have an impact, did it draw more people? This will provide the data to show that, versus just how it seemed anecdotally,” he said.
The system also will allow businesses on Lincoln Avenue to anonymously enter their sales to see what kind of ratio sales to foot traffic.
“You can see how many people are walking by, and how many are coming in your store, and how much of that translates into a sale. What is that ratio that needs to happen before you can have a good day in sales?” Campbell said. “Is there more traffic at night? Do we want to stay open later?”
In San Francisco, before installing the cameras, it was believed that Fleet Week was the biggest traffic week at Fisherman’s Wharf, with all kinds of activities going on including an air show. Police and parking control officers were deployed, directing pedestrian and traffic flow.
“Once we had the cameras installed, what we found out that Fleet Week isn’t the biggest weekend. If it’s sunny, President’s Day weekend is the biggest weekend at Fisherman’s Wharf, when we just had one beat police officer,” Campbell said.
Such cameras are also used in Times Square, in New York, and Union Square in San Francisco, he said, and, “It seemed like a really good fit to find out what’s happening on Lincoln Avenue.”
The Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport is only about a half-hour drive from Calistoga, compared to three times that long from San Francisco.
“I think the airport is a big asset for us. Especially with direct flights coming in from some cities that we know are our demographic,” Campbell said.
The idea is to get visitors to fly into Santa Rosa and visit the Napa Valley from the top down, as opposed to coming from San Francisco and never making the trek up to Calistoga.
“Santa Rosa is a much more manageable airport than San Francisco, especially if you just want to do the wine country,” Campbell said.
Alaska Airlines, which flies direct flights from Seattle, Portland, and southern California to Santa Rosa, allows passengers to check one case of wine for free.
“I frequently mention this to people,” Pelter said.
Keeping workers here
Another idea already being tried, to keep residents working in the area, is business apprenticeships with schools.
“The whole point is to try and get young people to see that — although college is great, and I’m not saying don’t go to college — but, college isn’t for everybody and not everybody can afford it. So show kids the breadth and variety of jobs there are in their community, and what they might be interested in,” Campbell said.
Recently, Campbell attended a meeting in Yountville, with other chambers, nonprofits and educational groups. There, he learned about a Napa Office of Education externship program, which got a grant to offer teachers a stipend to work in the summer alongside a chef or in another industry professional and share that experience with their students.
“Kind of blowing the whole career counselor idea, every teacher could be one. They can take that back to the classroom and tailor their curriculum to be a little more focused on those types of industries, to keep people working here in the valley,” Campbell said.