Dim and tattered buildings dot much of the 2-mile stretch of busy highway in the Sonoma Valley known as The Springs. The unincorporated community has long been seen as the ugly stepsister of Sonoma, a city just a mile to the south.
The Springs is perking up, though.
Restaurants, salons and shops are getting makeovers, replacing doors and windows, fixing parking lots and adding signs and fresh coats of paint after landing loans from Sonoma County. Meanwhile, the county will soon kick-start the second phase of a sidewalk- and road-improvement project expected to boost pedestrian safety and beautify the Highway 12 corridor that includes Agua Caliente, El Verano, Fetters Hot Springs and Boyes Hot Springs.
“Now, we’re Cinderella,” said Janie Raymond, owner of Plain Jane’s Consignments.
She recently was awarded a facade-improvement loan from the county. It’ll go toward paying for storefront signs and adding pops of color to the building she shares with the ice cream shop, La Michoacana, on the south section of the busy traffic and pedestrian corridor. The county put in sidewalks, lighting and bike lanes in 2010 as part of the first phase of the road-improvement project.
Together, she said, Plain Jane’s Consignment and La Michoacana will receive about $20,000 to pay for the façade work, which is being handled by Sebastopol artist and designer Rico Martin.
Business owners said the roadwork and commercial rehabilitation loan program will continue to make the area more inviting, encouraging motorists to stop by their locales instead of driving straight to the more attractive and flush Sonoma.
“We want to make it more inviting so people do stop and take advantage of the ice cream shops, hair salons and little cafes,” said Fred Bengs, construction services supervisor with the county Community Development Commission, which oversees the loan program.
Businesses can receive up to $15,000 for facade improvements, and the loan can be forgiven if the owner maintains the building and doesn’t sell it within five years, Bengs said. The program also offers up to $50,000 for larger renovations. It gives a business up to 20 years to pay back the loan, and part of that loan may be forgiven.
Gina Cuclis, who for 25 years has lived in The Springs, said residents were the driving force behind the revitalization. Cuclis said she and other residents formed in 1992 the Verano Springs Association, where she served as president, to push for sidewalks, lighting and other improvement after years of “neglect” from the county.
“We had blight. We had poor infrastructure,” said Cuclis, who now sits on the county Board of Education.
“It was a desire to want a more functioning and attractive community,” she said.
The loan program previously was run under the county’s redevelopment agency and paid for improvements at various restaurants in The Springs, including El Molino Central and E-Saan Thai House. When Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislators did away with redevelopment agencies, Bengs said, they turned to county supervisors for money. The board approved $1 million for the program last July.
All of the money has been awarded, said Charles Dollwet, a project specialist with the Community Development Commission. He has several businesses on a waiting list.
Dollwet said there currently are 30 projects underway throughout the county. About half of them are for businesses in The Springs — and half of those are being handled by Martin.