On The Hunt for a Vibrant Downtown

A recent Saturday in Downtown San Rafael proved there's more to downtown than denizens of despair: On the hunt for a vibrant downtown!

Was it love in the air? A gorgeous, sunny winter day? Or was it a glimpse of what the future holds for downtown San Rafael if we work to bring together the elements that lend to a vibrant shopping and entertainment district?

It would be nice to believe it was the upbeat energy that our teams of “Sweetheart Scavenger-Hunters” infused into the day (Saturday, February 9), as they enjoyed their walks of discovery into our historic past and an introduction to a wide variety of shops. But our 15 teams, which included San Rafael, Mill Valley and Sausalito residents simply added a sense of adventure to the scene that was already present.  

From my vantage point parked inside the entrance to Gamescape North for six hours, I witnessed a constant stream of parkers, passers-by, and patrons of stores.  Gamescape North had non-stop customers the entire day, many of who left the store with purchases. With all the negative attention downtown receives,
the afternoon proved there is much more to Fourth Street than denizens of despair.

After an afternoon sending out teams on the “Sweetheart Scavenger Hunt” that included tidbits on historic sites and reasons to venture into businesses, it was gratifying to have the teams return to Gamescape North delivering smiles and declarations of fun and worthy discovery. A huge thank-you to the businesses that welcomed participation and to those who donated gift certificates/gifts for those who completed the hunt.

In the mood to celebrate the small success, I met family at Odalisque, slipping in early without a reservation, where we enjoyed a bottle of wine, fresh and innovative cuisine, attentive and friendly service all in a lovely, modern setting. One of our party members, a long-time Mill Valley resident, commented about Odalisque, “This has a New-York feel to it, definitely not San Rafael.”  And while the comment was not intended to disparage San Rafael, as she happens to spend quite a bit of time in the city, she did imply that Odalisque was a welcome newcomer to the scene. When we left nearly two hours later, the restaurant was packed, aglow with dinner parties lending a lively vibe to the space, giving credence to the sentiment that Odalisque is indeed, a welcome addition to the downtown dining scene.

Stepping outside onto Fourth Street at 8 pm, we stepped onto a quiet street void of life. A stark contrast to the energy in the restaurant. As we drove east toward the freeway, it was mostly quiet, till we came to Fenix Live where the bar was flush with patrons, and the kitchen, lit-up and on display to the street, was buzzing with activity. Newly opened, Fenix Live has not yet begun a full-on marketing effort, smartly working out opening-days kinks before attempting to sell a premium experience to a wider audience, but based on our experience enjoying the fabulous house band last Wednesday night, there is hope for a successful future being within grasp.  

Further down the street, there was a line of patrons in front of George’s, awaiting entry for the evening’s comedy show.  With a transfer of ownership pending, the future of George’s as a consistent draw remains uncertain. But it won’t rise or fall due to its location in downtown San Rafael: The bookings and management of this under-utilized gem will determine its long-term fate.  

And therein lies the truth of downtown. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, if businesses give our residents a reason to enjoy downtown, they will gladly partake. Just ask Sol Hernandez  who is expanding her business savvy and delicious, affordable formula for success into Mill Valley. After building Sol Food into a business where lines of patrons spilling onto the sidewalk is a daily occurrence and supporting the livelihood of nearly 180 employees, Sol is testament to the fact that it is not the location, but rather, the experience delivered to patrons that matters most to business success.

The Business Improvement District (BID) has a role to play in the vitalization of downtown, through advocacy to city representatives, initiatives to clean up downtown and make it more welcoming, and spearheading promotional efforts to keep downtown top-of-mind as a destination. But it is up to the business owners to deliver the goods: creating and managing businesses that offer a shopping, dining or entertainment experience that keeps customers coming back for more.

If your business is not performing as well as you envision, it may be time for an extreme makeover. While we can’t promise you a visit from Gordon Ramsay (goodness forbid!) or “Samantha” from “Samantha’s Salon Takeover,” there are readily available resources for business owners who are willing to make changes in how they operate and are committed to investing the time and effort to make it happen. Seek and you shall receive assistance. Deliver quality, value and a great experience and the residents of San Rafael and the entire County will respond.

There is a hunger for a vibrant downtown district: one that cannot be filled only by those willing to go on a hunt.

In the days ahead, let’s work together. The BID is committed to advocating for improvement in the common areas, working on issues of safety, clean and welcoming streets, less punitive parking options, and supporting business recruitment efforts of leasing agents and brokers, as well as supporting our district with effective promotions and events. “Above all, try something,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt, in defense of new initiatives. For that is where it all begins: A willingness to simply try. The BID is game. Won’t you join us?


This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jonathan Frieman February 15, 2013 at 02:50 PM
Carol Thompson is an absolute gem. I'm glad she's here in San Rafael.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »