Oldtown Salinas: Go Big or Go Home

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Around dusk on a recent Wednesday evening, Main Street in Oldtown Salinas resembles a classic Wild West ghost town, sans tumbleweeds. Empty storefront windows reflect the sunset, faded paint flakes off aged buildings, and the only sounds are a handful of people shuffling down the sidewalk and trash scattering in the breeze.


The weekends are a little more lively, but only a little. The Oldtown Farmers Market brings families to the parking lot adjacent to the Steinbeck Center on Saturday mornings, and the Maya Cinema draws teens and couples on weekend nights. Down the block, the Banker’s Casino brings in a well-dressed, mostly Latino crowd for late-night gambling action, and the Fox Theater draws music lovers a few times a month for hip-hop or country concerts. The occasional fading rock act rolls in, and just as quickly rolls out. European tourists descend on the annual Steinbeck Festival, and rodeo enthusiasts ride to the annual California Rodeo. 


But that’s a few weekends a year. Most of the time there’s only a glimmer of life in downtown Salinas. There are almost as many empty storefronts on Main Street as there are businesses just hanging on, much less thriving.


It’s been a scattershot approach to development, and one that hasn’t given Salinas the feel that the city’s redevelopment agency and Oldtown Association are striving to achieve. 


But Redevelopment Director Alan Stumpf says there’s plenty in the works to transform Salinas’ downtown core.


“We’ve just entered into an exclusive negotiating rights agreement with Taylor Farms to redevelop 1.6 acres right across from the National Steinbeck Center,” Stumpf says, referencing the location where the Saturday Farmers Market is held.


The proposed five-story building would be the world headquarters for the multi-billion-dollar produce company, bringing nearly 400 jobs and mountains of tax revenue to the city – and giving surrounding restaurants a ready and eager new source of customers. 


There are grand, but far less concrete, plans by Irish-born developer Gerry Kehoe for a nightclub and several restaurants in Main Street’s historic Wells Fargo Bank Building, and a John Steinbeck-inspired restaurant/boutique hotel in the former Dick Bruhn building. 


Kehoe’s concepts for the Bruhn building, however, are still speculative. Meanwhile, the bank building was red-tagged by the city in May. 


It’s yet another episode in the serial drama that is Salinas redevelopment.


The city and its Oldtown Business Improvement District were set to sign a contract with Salinas Renaissance Partners in 2009 for exclusive Oldtown development rights. “But they were taking a shotgun approach,” Stumpf says. “When we got down to the financial aspects of the plan, it started falling apart.” 


The would-be downtown developers sued the city late last year for breach of contract. Meanwhile, the state Legislature’s passage of two bills that would eliminate redevelopment agencies could bring other projects to a standstill.


Despite his concerns about redevelopment’s future, Stumpf is trying to keep faith in his agency and development partners.


“We’re addressing things cooperatively,” he says.

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