North County

It is Monterey County''s second oldest city and, as the world''s largest agricultural producer of artichokes, the county''s second largest income-producing region.

Yet, for residents of the self-styled "Artichoke Center Of The World," there is a feeling that the town of Castroville has fallen behind the tourism/economic development boom occurring throughout the rest of the county.

All of that is about to change in a big way beginning later this spring, as Castroville takes its first steps toward a major, downtown revitalization program. The so-called "Merritt Street Corridor Revitalization Strategy," a cooperative enterprise between the residents of Castroville and the Monterey County Redevelopment Agency, is designed not only to capture the lucrative tourist trade that has eluded Castroville for the most part, but to reinvent the city to better serve the needs and aspirations of the residents themselves.

"We spent six months working with the community to create a multi-faceted program that builds on the assets of the community," says Jim Cook, the county''s principal administrative analyst responsible for the redevelopment agency.

According to Cook, the revitalization plan represents the collective efforts and input from numerous community workshops, a local citizens advisory committee formed to analyze the various proposals, four months of public community meetings, and the endorsement of the county Board of Supervisors.

"The key thing is the vision [for the plan] came from the community," adds Cook. "That was the guiding principle, and it wasn''t the case of the redevelopment agency coming in and telling the community what [the county] was going to do to you."

At the heart of the Castroville redevelopment plan, which is modeled after the National Main Street Program for economic development, is the creation of a produce market/international trade center based in part after the traditional Mexican-style "mercado."

The proposed market complex will feature a bounty of fresh agricultural products from throughout the Salinas Valley, as well as crafts, gift items and high-end merchandise from countries throughout the world that reflect the heritage of Castroville.

"We wanted to get away from chain stores and incorporate high-value specialty products like artifacts, clothing and apparel, and tapestries of Central and South America, Mexico and Italy that represent the origins of the bulk of the community," explains

Bob Steen, executive director of the Castroville Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to the market center, the Castroville proposal includes creation of a plaza at Castro Park that will serve as a town square with a library, museum and daycare facility, establishment of a comprehensive design manual to preserve and promote the city''s architectural history, construction of a trails-and-overlook system centered on the downtown that overlooks the artichoke fields, and general downtown upgrades that include new benches, bike racks, trash receptacles, plantings and murals.

On the business side, the revitalization program calls for the promotion of the town through package tours that include the area''s artichoke processing facilities, creation of a small-business technical-assistance program, and a series of road improvements and upgrades to eventually reroute truck traffic away from Merritt Street while maintaining auto/commuter traffic in the downtown area.

"What''s been presented is an exciting concept for the community that will be very aesthetic and culturally enriching," says District 2 Supervisor Judy Pennycook. "It reflects the community''s desires, needs and cultural values, and the plaza, with its open-air feel will be a gathering place for the community."

It is this need to improve the quality of life and level of services for the residents of Castroville, as much as the desire to boost tourism dollars, that forms the heart of the revitalization program.

There are currently 340 businesses in the greater Castroville area, employing 3,831 employees. The area''s 1998 total income of $228 million made Castroville the second largest income-producing region in unincorporated Monterey County.

Despite that rosy economic picture, the area''s median family income is only $32,000. Add to that such startling facts as the town''s median age of 24, the average household size of 4.13 persons (which is 72 percent larger than the general market average of 2.4 persons), and an 80 percent Latino population, and what emerges is a picture of a community beset by many challenges, but possessing great promise and potential for the future.

"What we''ve got [in Castroville] is a large segment of the population that is young, living in large families and in the family formation years," observes Cook. "That translates into an action plan and into tremendous commercial potential because [that demographic] tends to spend more per capita.

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"When we did our market study we had to push the expectations to adjust for that demographic mix in the community," adds Cook. "There is a tremendous need for recreational facilities, which is why we proposed building a new gymnasium as well as a new recreation site."

Central to the vision of a thriving, people-friendly downtown Castroville is the proposed overhaul and rerouting of commercial truck traffic through downtown. A recent traffic study reveals that approximately 60,000 vehicles pass through Castroville every day, of which a large percentage are trucks and tourist vehicles.

"Trucks create an environment that''s not conducive to shopping and a user-friendly environment," notes Cook. "The community can retake downtown and create an ambience more conducive to commercial investment. We recommend proceeding with a phased traffic improvement program in the community, with the first potential phase to divert heavy truck traffic and shift it to the south at the Andrew Molera interchange."

According to Cook, the initial phases of the downtown improvement program should begin soon after Castroville''s annual Artichoke Festival in May. Following work on the downtown, Cook says the city and county will then proceed with work on a new museum, daycare facility and other projects in the residential areas of Castroville immediately off the downtown center.

"At this point we''re moving forward with a full range of projects to create an environment of investment," says Cook, "including the resurfacing of Merritt Street, sidewalk, curb and drainage work, new covered bus stops, and a new stop light at Pajaro and Merritt streets. After those traffic and roadway improvements, we''ll deal with those design issues the community feels is limiting development downtown."

With a redevelopment vision in place, the biggest challenge facing Castroville and the county will be the funding mechanism to realize that vision, estimated to cost upwards of $25 million at completion.

Although the financial estimates are in place, the actual funding mechanisms have yet to be fully analyzed or determined. Cook says that $857,000 has already been programmed for this fiscal year for the initial downtown facelift and road improvements, and that future funding will come from a mix of local, state and federal funds, grant money, and a hoped-for influx of private investment money.

"The county is refining the concept, and it''s our hope it will be implemented as a private-sector-driven development," comments Cook. "The way you do revitalization is as important as what you''re able to achieve, to build additional pride and a capacity to sustain growth and positive feeling." cw

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