By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Boulevard business owners new and old look ahead
A lot has been written in local publications, this one included, about the declining number of businesses in the downtown Village along La Mesa Boulevard. But many business owners, both long-time operators and new investors in La Mesa, believe downtown’s future is about to be the brightest it has ever been thanks to improvements like the streetscape project, shifting demographics and a commitment by the city to refocus on popular events.
“There’s this kind of natural energy, or shift if you want to call it that, but [downtown La Mesa] is changing and I think it’s changing rapidly,” said Aaron Dean, a business owner invested in several ventures in the Village. “I think over the next three to five years it’s going to be a completely different area. Some will say not for the better, most I think will say for the better.”
Dean said he sees the future of downtown La Mesa as something akin to the Little Italy neighborhood in San Diego with lots of restaurants and coffee houses, but also with shops.
His own ventures along the boulevard speak to that vision — an Asian-fusion restaurant called Boulevard Noodles; a traditional coffee shop with breakfasts and pastries called Sheldon’s; and a mixed-use building with condos above what he hopes will be a bakery that he is building with the Patio Group.
Dean is not the only investor banking on the vision of a more culinary-based future. The Cohn Family Restaurants will soon be opening a game-centric taproom called Coin Haus next door to the Bo-Beau Kitchen + Garden it owns on the corner of La Mesa Boulevard and Allison Avenue. Moving into the space once occupied by Cosmos Coffee Café is the craft coffee shop Public Square owned by Aaron Hernandez. And another new restaurant called Four Penny House, opening next to Boulevard Noodles, will focus on beer, bread and both local and seasonal fare.
Four Penny House owner Peter Soutowood sees La Mesa as a great investment because of a changing demographic that is hungry for the kind of social activities they are accustomed to.
“A lot of my friends my age or younger who lived in North Park or South Park, started families and they are moving out here — a lot of them,” he said. “And they want places to eat and places to go and hang out like what they had there. I don’t think La Mesa is really a retirement community anymore. I don’t think it ever was.”
John Bedlion said he saw the potential of La Mesa’s downtown area years ago when he bought the “drug-infested, dangerous and awful” establishment he turned into what is now Johnny B’s.
“I bought it because of La Mesa, not because of that particular place,” he said. “I bought it because I saw this Village and I loved the feel of it.”
The improvements he put into Johnny B’s helped inspire other businesses in the area to do the same, he said. “I think people saw the potential of this area. The potential down here then was amazing and I think it’s even more amazing now and I’ve watched it grow.”
Bedlion also sees La Mesa growing into a destination for people to eat out and shop because there is a shortage of quality restaurants, not just in the city, but in most of East County. However, not everyone will be accepting of the changes to La Mesa’s sleepy feel.
“I think there’s going to be some pushback; not serious stuff, but you get it from people you don’t know about,” he said. “Some of it might be legitimate and some of it probably isn’t and we all have to come to a common ground with that; but I think in the long run we’ll all benefit from more restaurants, more diversity, more shops.”
In order for downtown La Mesa to have that eat, shop and play feel, it will need to replace existing office-type businesses that currently occupy much of the potential retail space.
“The real estate offices and escrow offices and some of those places need to get off the main street,” Dean said. “It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be part of the community, but that main street is exciting and I think it is where you’re going to see the change.”
Soutowood agrees that to achieve a vibrant downtown, the businesses need to be the kind that pique peoples’ interest to stroll in and out of buildings.
“I totally agree that there are some businesses that are not walk-in businesses that shouldn’t be on the main drag because I don’t think people say, ‘Ah, I’m going to stop in and get some title insurance,’” he said. “It could be on the second floor, that’s fine, but if you have stuff every single door where people want to come in, you’re going to see the sidewalks busy all day and right into the evening.”
Guy Blumenthal of Blumenthal Jewelers agrees and he recently moved his showroom on La Mesa Boulevard to a cottage on Date Street because it is a better fit for his business.
“We’re opening up a design house there, less inventory showing and doing a lot more design and trunk shows,” he said. “It’s a cool little house and we can make it into something very different.”
Blumenthal has operated in La Mesa for over 25 years and in that time, his vision for downtown has shifted with the changes in how retail business is done.
“I used to say I wanted [downtown] to look like Palo Alto. I don’t know if today that’s possible. The days of a lot of really nice brick and mortar retail stores are dwindling,” he said. “The jewelry store that I once had is a thing of the past. You can’t have those heavy inventories sitting there, those giant showrooms — it’s just not the way it’s going to be. The only way to compete with online is keeping your costs down.”
Keeping costs down is what eventually will cause the office businesses on the boulevard to move as well, Blumenthal said.
“The idea that there’s so many offices on the boulevard just says the rent is too cheap. It’s just a fact,” he said. “They wouldn’t be there if the rent was higher. They’d be upstairs or on the next street over or someplace else.”
Rent used be as low as $300 a month, which attracted hobbyists and not serious businesses, Blumenthal said, which made it difficult to market the area and bring people to shop and dine there.
“When we met as a city and the new City Council, we realized that one of the goals for us to do was promote and market our city,” City Councilmember Guy McWhirter said.
Marketing La Mesa has taken many forms, from promoting and revamping events like Oktoberfest, the classic car shows and Christmas in the Village, to the streetscape project that “remodeled” the sidewalks along La Mesa Boulevard.
“What Guy and the council have done with the redevelopment of the street is fantastic,” Dean said.
But not everyone was pleased and many people blame the roughly year-long project for closures of several local businesses along the Boulevard, an allegation that McWhirter refutes.
“We received a lot of criticism that [we] put these businesses out,” he said. “I guarantee that the city did not put one business out of business, it was a combination. Was this the straw? Maybe.”
But, he added, businesses like Sanfillipo’s had other issues like the coming $15-an-hour minimum wage to contend with; O’Dunn Fine Art Gallery found that La Mesa wasn’t ready for an art gallery; and Cosmos had a change of ownership that effected business.
“If you read the papers, it says after five years, only 25 percent of new businesses are still in business. I think downtown La Mesa is double that. We still have 50, 60 percent of new businesses that are still here after five years.”
Theresa Favro, owner Amethyst Moon, moved her gift shop back to La Mesa just before the streetscape project began. Before that, she operated her shop in El Cajon but moved after she sold her building because a similar construction project there slowed her business.
“I knew that they were going to tear up the street; I knew what was going to happen and I was prepared for it,” she said. “It was sad to watch all the other people that weren’t prepared for it because I had gone through the same thing in El Cajon … I knew the businesses down here didn’t know what was coming.”
Favro, like other retail spaces that rely on walk-in traffic, struggled through the streetscape but now sees the finished boulevard as a great opportunity for expansion.
“As soon as they reopened the street, business picked right back up,” she said. “I’d like to open one or two more stores in the Village as spaces come available, that’s my plan. If there’s going to be mom and pop stores, I think why shouldn’t I own them.”
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.