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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Old Town Camarillo Gets a Major Facelift

In the temporary location of his barber shop, Hank Robles takes a moment from cutting the hair of a customer to unroll the blueprints of a building now under construction in the Old Town section of Camarillo. The building at the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Elm Drive will be the first two-story structure on that block, Robles explained, and was designed to fit in with the other storefronts. When completed in the spring, Robles and his wife will operate their respective hair salons from one of the units with the other three available for retail or office uses. In the meantime, Robles works out of another storefront along Ventura Boulevard, knowing that if his regular clientele couldn’t find him they would go elsewhere. “That’s why I couldn’t close,” Robles said. “You can’t afford to lose your customers.” The investment by Robles, other property owners and the City of Camarillo is putting new life into Old Town, the original downtown of the city before the Ventura (101) Freeway came through and pushed development to the north. In a three phase project, the city spent an estimated $10 million on streetscape improvements widening the sidewalks; narrowing the streets; adding palm trees and decorative street and tree lighting. A facade improvement program upgraded the look of 40 businesses and a new zoning code eliminated minimum setbacks and made changes to maximum lot coverage. The goal is a distinct shopping and dining area; a commercial stretch of independent stores and restaurants to counter the national chains found at the Camarillo Town Center and Premium Outlets mall. While much work has been done, the city and business owners know that more is needed and that the current economic slump isn’t helping matters much. Still, they plod away with the Old Town Association, for instance, transitioning from a business group that sponsored events to one creating a strategic plan, and the city formulating plans for reusing a former county building, a school, and an old firehouse. “The area serves as the gateway to (Cal State University Channel Islands) and there will be opportunities to be the place for people to go from the university,” said Bob Burrow, community development director for the City of Camarillo. Old Town is anchored by the Metrolink/Amtrak station on Lewis Avenue at the east end and Carmen Drive on the west with the bell tower of St. Mary Magdalen church a prominent feature on the skyline. Ventura Boulevard is a mixture of restaurants (Italian, Mexican, Japanese) day spas, home furnishing and jewelry stores, professional services and a small motel. Palm Street has multiple antique stores. The area hosts a weekly farmer’s market and an arts and jazz festival in the summer. A revitalized Old Town can capitalize on what is lacking in nearby communities in the Conejo and Simi valleys a true downtown commercial center. “It makes a town feel better,” said Tom Kelly, the president and CEO of the Camarillo Chamber of Commerce. “People love the idea of a downtown and going there for shopping and events.” Old Town looked a lot different to Jeff Walker when he was growing up in Camarillo and now as owner of JJ Brewsky’s restaurant and pub on Ventura Boulevard he is doing his part to once again make the area look different. In August, Walker became chairman of the Old Town Association, a committee of the chamber, and wants to align the committee’s vision of the district with that of the city. The strengths of Old Town are that the city spent money for improvements and its location in the center of Ventura County and close to the freeway and train station, Walker said. As a well-rounded shopping and dining destination Old Town wouldn’t necessarily be competing with the outlet mall further north on Ventura Boulevard but complement it. “You’ll see some unique stores you will not find in the outlet mall,” Walker said. As the largest visitor destination in the county, the outlet mall is a natural to supply shoppers to Old Town businesses if they know it is there. No signs direct drivers to Old Town from off the freeway. The train station provides access without driving although Metrolink has no weekend service and Amtrak service is not frequent. Connecting Old Town and the outlet mall has been on the mind of business advocates. “We’d like a trolley or some other transportation as a link between the two,” Kelly said. No redevelopment of Old Town could take place without the participation of Dick Keller and Jim Ludwig. Their KL Equities LLC owns some 30,000 square feet of space, including where Walker has his restaurant and where Robles operates until he’s ready to occupy his new building. In fact, Robles credits the pair with opening his eyes to the benefits a new building could have for his business and Old Town as a whole. “They’re very knowledgeable, those two guys,” Robles said. Keller was involved with the redevelopment in Santa Monica that became the Third Street Promenade. He and Ludwig were consultants for the downtown projects in Ventura and Oxnard. Like Burrow, the pair sees CSUCI as a key factor in the success of the district. In a decade’s time, Keller envisions Camarillo as a college town along the lines of San Luis Obispo, home of a campus of Cal Poly State University. To enhance the appeal of the district, Keller and Ludwig encourage their brokers to find like-minded businesses that can help and complement each other. There is, for instance, a cluster of some 20 businesses that make the district a design center of sorts tile and wall coverings, interior decorators, home accessories and kitchen appliances. “That is one natural component here,” Ludwig said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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