4 people sitting behind a table.
A panel discussion Thursday night focused on how to energize State Street in downtown Santa Barbara. Participating were, from left, Ron Fox, PATH board member; Hal Conklin, former Santa Barbara Mayor; Amy Cooper, owner of Plum Goods; and Jerry Ogburn, downtown development advisor for Palm Springs. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

A downtown development consultant from Palm Springs contends that Santa Barbara needs to court millennials, build housing downtown, and create more outdoor dining to help revitalize State Street and the downtown core. 

Jerry Ogburn, downtown development advisor for Palm Springs, shared his experiences in that desert city, and offered his ideas for Santa Barbara, as part of a panel discussion Thursday night, hosted by the World Business Academy at the Belmond El Encanto.

More than 100 people attended the event. 

“You need energy,” Ogburn said. “People who live downtown bring energy. Downtown is everyone’s neighborhood.”

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Ogburn was joined by Rinaldo S. Brutoco, founder and president of the WBA; Amy Cooper, owner of Plum Goods Store on State Street; former Santa Barbara Mayor Hal Conklin, also president of USA Green Communities; and Ron Fox, a board member for People Assisting the Homeless. 

Santa Barbara is scrambling to rescue downtown at a time when people are abandoning department and retail store shopping in favor of Amazon.com and other online retailers.

High commercial real estate rents, a steady presence of aggressive panhandlers and the rise of e-commerce has caught some city and community leaders flat-footed.

There’s no shortage of ideas, from creating so-called “experiential” destination shops and building more housing downtown, to closing off State Street to vehicular traffic and branding the areas with more specific “district” titles, such as “Historic” and “Cultural.”

Others blame Santa Barbara’s rigorous permitting process, or high rents charged by property owners, for exacerbating Santa Barbara’s retail slowdown.

While ideas run rampant, the city has yet to gain significant traction in solving the problems downtown.

3 people participating in a panel discussion.

Amy Cooper, owner of Plum Goods and Jerry Ogburn, downtown development advisor for Palm Springs, joined Rinaldo S. Brutoco, president and founder of the World Business Academy (at podium) to talk about ways to revitalize Santa Barbara’s downtown, during a panel discussion on Thursday. Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Currently, the most vibrant area of the city is the “Funk Zone,” the one-time home of artists, craftsmen and funky shops, which has since been replaced with wineries, breweries and places to eat, where parking is scarce and faces other than those of millennials are even rarer. 

Ogburn said he was pleased to arrive in Santa Barbara Thursday, considering that it was 107 degrees in Palm Springs during the morning, but that he was struck by the lack of pedestrian traffic on State Street and outdoor activities to attract people to the downtown area.

The sidewalks on State Street are too wide, he said, and there needs to be more outdoor dining opportunites. 

He said nearly 30 years ago, when he arrived in Palm Springs, the city was known as “God’s Waiting Room,” because it was a hub for the elderly.

The commercial vacancy rate was 45 percent downtown, he said. 

He helped create downtown attractions by pushing for more lighting and outdoor dinning.

“The city had a dark sky ordinance,” Ogburn recalled. “There was no lighting or outdoor dining.

“We went from God’s waiting room to an attraction for millennials.”

He helped create Village Fest —the street fair and event started on one block that eventually stretched to a mile long with more than 150 vendors. 

“This isn’t the internet, guys,” Ogburn said. “This is person to person, eyeball to eyeball.”

The Village Fest also includes food courts and live entertainment, and on some nights there are as many as 10,000 people downtown. 

Palm Springs built housing downtown, Ogburn said. 

“Downtown housing is an opportunity here,” Ogburn said. “You want millennials. That’s going to make your future.”

Ogburn also said the gay community has lifted the city.

“The gay population in Palm Springs has been a major reason for the resurgence,” he said. 

 People who attend the Coachella music festival often visit and stay in Palm Springs, he said. 

Cooper announced that she is going to chair a new Santa Barbara Retail Task Force to help lead revitalization efforts downtown. 

“The fight for State Street is a fight for Santa Barbara,” Cooper said. “We have one of the most beautiful towns in the world. I don’t want to see that lost.”

Conklin pushed some of the ideas he suggested during last year’s mayoral campaign.

“Santa Barbara really needs an economic development plan that becomes a road map for where you want to go,” he said, adding that “the downtown in many ways is too big.”

Fox, the PATH board member, said Santa Barbara will always have homeless people in the downtown core. They need housing, some place to call home, to get them off the streets, he said. 

“We have to build our way out of this problem,” Fox said. “We will do our best to mitigate the problem. I don’t think we’re going to eliminate it.”

Several members of the public asked questions or offered comments after the panelists gave their formal presentations. 

Planning Commissioner John Campanella said the new retail task force should include someone who can speak on behalf of families. He pointed out that there are few to no options for kids to go anywhere on State Street without spending money.

“I don’t think we’re family friendly on State Street,” Campanella said.

Ogburn, in response, suggested a public park as a gathering place.

“There’s no big downtown park on State Street,” Ogburn said. “I think that’s missing.”

Cooper said she was excited to work with the community to find collaborative solutions.

“This crisis really is an opportunity,” she said. 

Mayor Cathy Murillo, council members Kristen Sneddon and Jason Dominguez, and planning commissioners Campanella and Deborah Schwartz were among the city officials who attended the event. 

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Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Joshua Molina

Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com.