Collaboration vital to downtown

Last week I stopped by Garlic City Books and overheard employee
Ann Marie Guinn talking to Debbie McCowan, owner of the The Costume
Trunk. They were intently discussing their hopes for a thriving
Monterey Boulevard. They had just met that afternoon, with McCowan
wandering a few storefronts over to introduce herself.
Last week I stopped by Garlic City Books and overheard employee Ann Marie Guinn talking to Debbie McCowan, owner of the The Costume Trunk. They were intently discussing their hopes for a thriving Monterey Boulevard. They had just met that afternoon, with McCowan wandering a few storefronts over to introduce herself.

That’s exactly the kind of neighborly outreach that makes downtowns vital. Eric Howard, president of the Downtown Business Association, says it’s important for merchants to get to know each other: “We’re all after the same thing – bringing business downtown.”

Downtown advocate Gary Walton adds that, “It’s very difficult to have consistency if everyone’s doing their own thing. This way we can consolidate events, sidewalk sales.”

McCowan, whose store just celebrated its third anniversary a few days ago, says she tries to meet all the merchants and knows everyone on her block except the owners at the two Mexican restaurants. She tried when she first started up her business, but she doesn’t speak Spanish, and they didn’t speak English.

Amber Madrone, who owns 1-year-old Mango Street Kids, says she’s met four or five other merchants. “We’re so busy running our own stores it’s hard to step out,” she laments. She too is unable to communicate with peers who don’t speak English.

Some good things are happening in that regard. Howard, who recently took on the Downtown Business Association presidentship, is bilingual and aware that there needs to be outreach to bring Spanish-speaking merchants into the fold. “What’s important is getting more Hispanics on the board. Then they’ll feel more welcome,” he says.

Raul Avila may be key in getting Spanish speakers involved. He’s considering joining the board. His parents have run the restaurant El 7 Mares since 1986 and he’s in the process of taking it over. “I think it will benefit us Latino business owners but I would like to experience a meeting first. It’s overdue that Latino business owners get involved. If I’m the first one, just by me going it will open the door for others who may be more hesitant.”

He adds, “Maybe sometimes Latinos don’t want to step on toes or make people angry, but maybe we should do something for the whole town and be aware of city politics. I want to be part of it.” Best of all, due to the longevity of the restaurant, he knows “pretty much all” of the merchants downtown. Fluently bilingual, he could be the crucial link. “We love Gilroy. I’m born in Gilroy,” he says.

Walton says he’s not sure what percentage of merchants only spoke Spanish, but he thinks the perception is that it’s higher than it is. He is quick to point out that the language issues don’t create two separate downtowns: “It’s one downtown. We’re going to do it together.”

Howard is working to put together a merchant mixer, something that hasn’t happened for about five years. Given that businesses constantly turn over, there are a lot of new store owners who don’t know each other. The process, however, works slowly. His staffer works ten hours a week, going store to store to get contact information for all merchants so that the invitation can then go out.

All the merchants I talked to in my admittedly unscientific survey say they are enthusiastic about the idea of meeting their fellow tradespeople. Madrone says, “We need more opportunities to get to know each other.”

Here’s a specific example of why that’s important: Among other things, Guinn and McCowan were talking last week about parking issues. They each take care to park behind their businesses, so as not to siphon the “rock star parking spaces” from potential customers.

They said Gary Walton had told them that each space directly in front of a business is worth $10,000 a year. Walton later told me that the figure comes from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Web site on their Main Street program.

If people can’t easily find parking, Walton says they’ll conclude, “‘I’ll just come back another time.’ And they may never come back.” If merchants can agree to refrain from parking right on Monterey and ask their employees to do the same, it could make a significant difference in sales and repeat business.

Call for sources: I’d like to write about Prop. 8’s unconstitutionality currently being looked at by the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Any Gilroyans who married during the slim window of legality in 2008, wish that they had, or wish they could marry now: I’d love to talk to you. You can reach me at [email protected]

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