Ray Gusman, owner of Ray’s Liquor on Santa Barbara’s Westside, thinks the community’s authenticity gives it an edge over other neighborhoods. “A lot of people don’t even know we’re here, and I see the same faces every week,” he says. “It’s kind of an old-time feeling.”  (Alex Kacik / Noozhawk photo)

Ray Gusman has owned Ray’s Liquor, at 1422 San Andres St. in the heart of Santa Barbara’s Westside, for the past 24 years.

Most Westside businesses occupy San Andres between Sola Street and Cook Avenue and many of them, like Ray’s Liquor, have been there for decades.

“The Westside is different from the Eastside or downtown,” Gusman said. “We’re kind of on our own.

“A lot of people don’t even know we’re here, and I see the same faces every week. It’s kind of an old-time feeling.”

The close-knit community is one of the area’s most important qualities, said Tony Becerra, a Westside resident who runs the Academy of Koei-Kan Karate-Do, 1427 San Andres St., and the nonprofit South Coast Community Youth Cultural Center.

“Its strength is the longevity of the businesses around here,” Becerra said. “From Steve (Morris), the driving instructor, to the barber shop and the bakery, they have been here for decades so it adds stability to the area.”

Some Westside residents are pushing for local improvements that would spur business development while others are hesitant to change.

Carl Shaw-Wilgus said more people should know about the Westside’s unique family-owned businesses.

“People want to come to places like this because the food is quality and they want the home-grown businesses, not the corporate stuff,” Shaw-Wilgus said as he was buying two slices of cheese pizza at Paesano’s Pizzeria, 1429 San Andres St. “We got to keep places like this in business.”

Becerra suggested a block party that would help increase the Westside’s visibility and promote its unique businesses. That idea was also reflected on Let’s Talk Westside, the online-public engagement forum Noozhawk is hosting as part of the larger THRIVE Westside initiative currently under way to come up with suggestions to improve the area.

New conversation topics have been added this week to the Let’s Talk Westside town hall. Among them are a Westside farmers market, a community swimming pool, park safety, healthy food, youth services, communication between the community and police and the city, a public plaza, commercial and retail needs and social support services.

“I would like to see some block parties, maybe even a Farmer’s Market on the Westside,” Miceala H wrote. “Why not have a food truck festival with music that plays at one of the Westside schools?”

Other online suggestions include assembling a group of locals who know the Westside well and what its needs are, providing incentives to start businesses on the Westside, building a library and improving the Micheltorena Street bridge, signage and lighting in the area.

“Any improvement on lighting is important because people don’t feel safe walking at night,” Becerra said.

But Gusman disagreed. Any change to the local businesses and surrounding area would negatively affect the community because it would diminish the authenticity, he said.

“I think it should probably stay as it is to maintain its feel,” he said. “The city has tried to revitalize it a little bit but drastic change may not go over well.”

Businesses like Ray’s Liquor, Super Cuca’s and La Bella Rosa Bakery are faring well but others like Paesano’s and Foodland are struggling.

Paesano’s owner Jean-Pierre Buguet said Foodland’s daily customers have decreased to 900 from 1,400 over the past two years at the grocery store at 1502 San Andres St.

“People aren’t spending money,” he said. “I don’t know what to do to bring more customers here.”

The Westside can attract new customers by adding more businesses, like the recently opened MetroPCS store, Becerra said.

“Without new stores, people will think that area is the same and will never find a reason to come here,” he said.

Even if these projects could be funded, the problem is that there’s not much space to build nor many vacant locations, said Brian Johnson, general manager of Radius Group.

“There aren’t any long stretches of commercial space where you can build businesses,” he said. “The current businesses are mostly filling a niche for residents in that area and there isn’t much draw for people outside of the area.”

Although new buildings may not be feasible, something needs to change, Becerra said.

“We need to bring excitement to the Westside,” he said.

Those concerned about the Westside can voice their opinions at the Westside United Boys & Girls Club, 602 W. Anapamu St., at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

THRIVE Westside is also organizing a larger wrap-up session on Jan. 21. Community officials and civic leaders have been invited to discuss some of the most popular ideas from both the public and online forums and the means to implement them.

“The goal is using the online and in-person dialogue to get as many people involved as we can, and ultimately bring everyone together so the conversation doesn’t stop with ideas and continues into planning and implementing them,” said Jarrod Schwartz, executive director of Just Communities, Noozhawk’s partner in the online project and an organizer of the public forums.

THRIVE Westside is a partnership of Harding University Partnership School, McKinley School, La Cumbre Junior High School, San Marcos High School, the Santa Barbara Unified School District, the James S. Bower Foundation, Just Communities, One Nation Foundation, the Orfalea Foundations and the Santa Barbara Foundation.

Lead sponsors of Let’s Talk Westside are MarBorg Industries, Wells Fargo, Southern California Gas Co. and Paul Cashman of State Farm Insurance.

Additional Let’s Talk Westside sponsors include the Academy of Koei-Kan Karate-Do, Business First Bank, El Zarape Mexican Food, Griffith & Thornburgh LLP, Meridian Group, Paper Moon Printing, ParentClick.com, Presidio Sports, Santa Barbara Community Housing Corp., Santa Barbara Home Improvement Center and the South Coast Community Youth Cultural Center.

» Click here for more information on Just Communities’ THRIVE Westside project.

» Click here for more information about THRIVE Santa Barbara County.

Noozhawk business writer Alex Kacik can be reached at akacik@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.