Castroville “living laboratory” empowers entrepreneurs.
Thursday, June 30, 2011
Downtown Castroville’s looking sharp these days, and it’s not just the thistles on its world-famous artichokes. Fresh coats of paint adorn established businesses, and new window displays lure in patrons.
“Before, people couldn’t really see what was in the windows,” says Fernando Reynoso, who with his family runs Reynoso Market on Merritt Street. “Now, more people are coming in.”
The changes in the downtown core go beyond the cosmetic. The building beautification is part of a larger experiment to reinvent the county’s small business development and economic revitalization efforts.
“We used to give façade grants on an individual basis, but we recognized we needed a more collaborative approach,” says Jerry Hernandez, a redevelopment analyst with the County Office of Economic Opportunity. That approach, he says, takes into account commonalities between the unincorporated community and the East Alisal business district of Castroville’s neighbor, Salinas.
“Many of the business owners in both areas are Latino and monolingual, and are entrepreneurs but don’t have a strong business background,” Hernandez says. “We wanted to recognize that these communities’ challenges are different from the [U.S.] Small Business Administration’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ model that assumes businesses have plans and a certain level of financial readiness.”
In April and May, Hernandez and his county colleagues met with 17 small business development agencies to determine how to meet clients’ needs in a more coordinated fashion. The group formed new partnerships, held classes on financial literacy and marketing, and even created new jobs.
“We partnered with the county Workforce Investment Board, and were able to have unemployed adults from the community be a part of a program where they’ve been getting training as painters,” Hernandez says. “Some have even been hired by other places, so we’re helping the downtown and the jobless.”
The initial success of the Castroville “living laboratory” led Hernandez and his office’s director, Jim Cook, to plan for its use in Salinas and elsewhere.
“After we’ve test-driven it in an urban environment, we’ll have a template we can use in other jurisdictions,” Cook says. “Once you get groups focusing their energy in one location, you have a concept to put on the table for others, instead of just glittering generalities.”
The project is bankrolled by federal funds, the state’s redevelopment program and local redevelopment taxes.
The latter source may prove problematic if the state adopts a budget that eliminates redevelopment agencies entirely, something Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed and the Legislature has attempted. “The county’s unincorporated areas are desperately in need of systems that redevelopment agencies bring,” Cook says. “Just when projects are blossoming in Castroville, we face the threat of elimination.”
Cook and his staff are devising contingency plans to keep county redevelopment projects afloat even if state funding disappears. They’re also seeking community partners to sustain programs on a shoestring. For example, they’re discussing a potential partnership to place student interns from the Monterey Institute for International Studies with local small business owners.
“Placing our students with Latino entrepreneurs makes sense, since many of them speak Spanish,” says MIIS professor Fredrick Kropp. “There aren’t many programs working with nascent, early-stage Latino businesses.”
“Unless we collaborate,” Hernandez adds, “there’s not going to be a future.”