By Bruce Dobb As the San Fernando Valley economy picks up steam, the last business sector to improve is the commercial shopping districts in older, residential communities. Commercial areas are invariably the first to show signs of blight when a neighborhood deteriorates and the last to snap back when things turn around. From Sherman Way in Canoga Park to downtown Van Nuys to Hollywood Boulevard, people wonder whether anything can be done to restore blighted shopping districts. The success of Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and Pasadena’s Old Town attest to L.A.’s hunger for pedestrian-friendly public spaces that invite mingling and social life. Areas that have been revitalized are teeming with shoppers and lease rates and retail sales there have more than tripled during the ’90s. Revitalization can happen in the Valley, but not without a comprehensive public/private partnership plan. Commercial revitalization has been successful in San Diego’s Gaslight District, Baltimore’s Gay Street, Philadelphia’s South Street and even downtown Long Beach. There’s no reason it can’t be done successfully in the San Fernando Valley, if the correct program is in place. Here’s a step-by-step approach to creating such a program: – Define a concentrated area that represents a cluster of shopping for a specific community or neighborhood. In Eastern cities, these areas are typically easy-to-define corridors along densely packed commercial areas that have lots of foot traffic. In Los Angeles, they are spread across wider areas, have greater need for parking and are harder to define. But the merchants know who their customers are, and they can usually determine what the area of concentration should be. – Organize the stakeholders. Merchants, property owners and nearby residents all have a vested interest in restoring their communities, but they don’t necessarily share objectives. The merchant wants to grow a business by attracting more customers who may not necessarily be nearby residents. The property owner may want to increase property value in order to sell, but may not be interested in new investment. Part of organization means providing the leadership needed to build consensus. Without it, efforts to revitalize will fail. – Design architectural standards, or some type of overall visual means of tying together the elements of a shopping district and giving it an identity. For example, say a district has a lot of antique stores, which is why people want to shop there. Gas lamps and wrought-iron street fixtures will enhance the old-fashioned image. Another district has an increasing number of stores that cater to the Latino market’s need for furniture, toys, kitchen appliances and other household needs; street signs in Spanish will help that area. Whatever the theme or unifying feature, the lighting, streetscape and signage should all add to an impression among customers that this area will satisfy his or her needs. – Create a mechanism to start the reinvestment process. This may be the establishment of a Business Improvement District, the enactment of an ordinance to require uniform signs and facade improvements, or a code-enforcement effort that targets a designated area. The important thing is that everyone is required to reinvest at the same time. This avoids the “free ride” mentality that says, “I’ll wait until my investment increases in value because of everyone else’s efforts, and then sell.” – Offer affordable financing to those who need it. Not every merchant or owner can invest now. To make the revitalization happen quickly, a number of programs are available from the Small Business Administration, the state of California, the Community Development Bank and local banks that are geared to small business. The city must pay for the services of an economic development specialist who can uncover these money sources and make them available for merchants and others in need of help. – Combine advertising, promotional and security efforts on the part of those seeking to revitalize the area. Poor security, more than any other single factor, is cited as the reason shoppers avoid older shopping districts. Security encompasses parking issues, lighting, policing and merchant cooperation. Good promotional efforts and advertising are also reasons that some malls are successful. Street fairs, newspaper ads and special events can be a large boost to a commercial area and are sometimes necessary to attract shoppers back. Valley commercial area stakeholders are just starting to realize that they could be sitting on gold mines, if only they could bring back shoppers. L.A. City Council members Laura Chick and Mike Feuer have aggressively sought to transfer funding from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority into such programs as the L.A. Neighborhood Initiative Program, formed recently to help rebuild commercial shopping areas in the city. Other City Council representatives from the Valley have supported non-profit organizations that help small businesses, and other initiatives to revitalize blighted shopping districts. The plan outlined above is a road map for commercial revitalization that merchants, property owners and residents can follow. These are also the people who must provide the last, most necessary ingredient hard work. Burce Dobb is the chief credit officer for the Valley Economic Development Center’s revolving loan fund and a regular contributor to the San Fernando Valley Business Journal.