A bicyclist rides past an empty retail space on First Street in Cloverdale, California on Monday, March 28, 2011. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

Cloverdale fights economic blahs

Cloverdale has struggled for years to fill downtown storefronts, so the latest economic study showing it has the highest retail vacancy rate in Sonoma County is no surprise.

Battered by the loss of the city's biggest employers and the re-routing of Highway 101 out of the downtown in the early 1990s, the county's northernmost and most remote city has been trying to reinvent itself and create jobs and commercial growth.

Now, some of those efforts may be paying off.

"I think Cloverdale is just getting ready to take that next step and get some really good, solid business in downtown," said Mayor Gus Wolter, a bank manager and owner of a bed-and-breakfast inn. "I see a light at the end of the tunnel."

"It is happening now. If we are smart, we will get hold of the wave and ride it," said Mary Ann Brigham, a former City Council member and owner of the only beer pub in town, who is looking to expand her operation to keep up with growing demand.

Her success could be a harbinger of better days for the city of 8,618 people.

"We just had our ninth anniversary," she said of her Ruth McGowan's Brew Pub. "Our numbers are strong and going up. We can't make enough beer to satisfy outside customers and keep beer in our pub."

City officials see glimmers of hope in the openings soon of several new businesses downtown and inquiries from others interested in locating in Cloverdale.

A modest, 99-seat performing arts center that opened in December on Cloverdale Boulevard is bringing more life downtown, not only from theater patrons, but the steady flow of activities and parties booked into a nearby annex, including dance classes, birthdays, weddings and quinceneras.

That's in addition to the growing success of the 13-week, Friday Night Live series that attracts 1,000 to 2,000 people at a time to the downtown plaza for an eclectic series of free concerts.

And last year, Cloverdale got some welcome attention from Budget Travel magazine, which named it one of America's "coolest small towns," with a headline that designated it "Wine Country Without the Fuss."

But vacant storefronts and empty lots still dot the downtown as a reminder of the city's better days, when lumber was king and millions of board feet of timber were hauled to Cloverdale's sawmills.

The city's unemployment rate - at 15.3 percent - is the worst for any city in the county.

According to U.S. Census figures, Cloverdale's population grew by 26 percent from 2000 to 2010, the largest percentage growth in Sonoma County. But it doesn't help that Cloverdale is largely a bedroom community. Almost three-quarters of its employed residents commute out of town for their jobs, according to the Chamber of Commerce, and tend to shop in other cities.

While a few lumber plants still operate, Louisiana-Pacific, once the town's biggest employer with 250 workers, closed in 1991.

"You could almost taste the sawdust in the air," Brigham recalls of Cloverdale three decades ago. "There were clothing stores, shoe stores. We had a florist, many more restaurants, lots of bars."

"It was a thriving little community. You could go out on a Saturday night and hear live music in three places - country western, rock &‘n' roll, blues and jazz," she said.

In 1994, completion of the freeway bypass dealt a blow to local commerce. It reduced traffic on Cloverdale Boulevard from 25,000 vehicles a day to about 5,000.

The relocation of the highway provided an opportunity for a $4 million beautification that in 2004 transformed the downtown boulevard into two lanes with pedestrian-friendly touches. And redevelopment funds also helped building owners spruce up stores and facades.

But rather than fulfilling the prophecy "Build it and they will come," the cute little downtown often seemed deserted. Lately, however, city leaders are seeing signs of a budding renaissance.

"We've met with 15 businesses in the last two months," said Chamber of Commerce Director Carla Howell, who is member of a city outreach committee formed to attract new businesses and streamline the permit process.

"People have come to us from outside Cloverdale interested in opening a business," she said. "I think things will start happening if some of the people we've met will be able to follow through with plans."

Cloverdale is not alone when it comes to a high number of defunct businesses. But it has the highest amount of vacant retail space - 14 percent - compared to 9 percent for the county overall, according to a survey by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

Petaluma, the next highest, is burdened with almost 13 percent retail vacancy rate.

The general economic downturn hasn't helped Cloverdale's predicament either.

"What's slowing things down, is there are not a lot of loans available. Banks are really tight with money," Howell said.

Among those willing to bet some of their own money on downtown Cloverdale is Ken Knight, who is planning the opening of a business in June, in a space last occupied by a bakery, across the street from the new performing arts theater and the Cloverdale History Center.

Knight, a former buyer for Williams-Sonoma and fashion director for high-end retailer Neiman-Marcus, will sell "specialty, contemporary gifts and home accessories."

A permanent Cloverdale resident for the past two years, he senses a brighter mood in town.

He credits the new performing arts theater as the catalyst.

"Every positive, colorful fresh entity that lands on that street will boost the next one," he said.

But others say the city needs a better strategy to attract visitors.

Nick Uribe, co-owner of Yogurtdale, a self-serve frozen yogurt shop that opened last year at the north end of downtown, said Cloverdale "has to look at becoming more of a destination place" and develop more tourism.

"The train would have helped a lot," he said of the SMART passenger service that was supposed to reach Cloverdale by 2014 but now has an uncertain date because of budget problems.

Steve Nurse, a window and door salesman

, said Cloverdale must find a way to get free-spending tourists to drive beyond chic Healdsburg, just 15 minutes away.

He said more wine-tasting and restaurants would help.

"We're a better town than Healdsburg," he asserted. "You can see the hills and the natural environment."

Locals talk of Cloverdale's ideal proximity to vine-claden Alexander and Dry Creek valleys, as well as Mendocino County and the coast.

And they boast that in the summer, they have "the warmest evenings in Sonoma County," ideal for outdoor eating.

In the center of downtown, next to Eagles Nest Deli, another business soon will open - Local Folkal, an artisans' cooperative selling handmade goods from local artists.

City Councilwoman Carol Russell sees it as part of a niche, an identity Cloverdale can parlay into economic development to fill those empty spaces.

"We are going to take our brand, which is really who we are - a small town with agriculture and artisans, arts and crafts personalities, gardeners and horse people," she said. "Something about this part of the world attracts all of us."

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