Like a Hole in the Donut, The Downtown Still Needs Help

Last night I joined my German travel writer brethren and met with the sales manager of the local Hyatt. She piled up plate after plate of choice items from their menu, and my six fellow writers were glad that her boss speaks German and chatted them up. German readers love anything that has to do with the American west, and the city’s gold rush attractions like Fort Sutter and the gold discovery center in Coloma are high on their list.

Old Sacramento.
Old Sacramento carriage ride.

I learned for the second time what a challenge it has been for city planners and boosters to turn Sacramento’s downtown around.  Just five blocks from the main drag, J Street, it becomes leafy and gentrified, but here in the 800-900 blocks there are empty storefronts and trashy stores. Brashy young mayor Kevin Johnson is working hard on a bunch of ideas; one of the biggest would be a land swap that would move Arco Arena to a blighted area of former railyards nearer downtown and move the state fair at the same time.

There was once a mall and a Hard Rock Cafe, but sadly, they are now gone, so a challenge is to figure out how to make people come downtown. With state workers getting three mandated Friday furloughs per month, it seems that once the population of state employees leaves, downtown is a ghost town.  It’s a problem faced by most big cities, and is part of the ebb and flow of city evolution.

But there are people like the investors and owners of the Citizen Hotel, right downtown, who believe that downtown will be revitalized. One idea is to bring car traffic back to K Street, where no it’s just streetcar tracks and pedestrians. A local investor, Kip Blewett, told me about plans to hire a retail recruiter to fill stores and for plans to bring car traffic back to K Street, which now has tracks but no cars and few people. Other ideas is an agricultural resource center that would highlight the state’s dominant position in growing food, and showcase California products a la the Pike Street Market in Seattle.

Again and again I heard from locals that this is a great place to live and work. “People are always surprised at how much they like Sacramento,” said one young woman who was born here. She never thought that she’d stay here after she grew up, but now she’s happy she did.