“I wish this was” in downtown: [Fill in the blank]

An empty building’s window display at 7541 Monterey St. is dressed so it doesn't look vacant. The public will be asked Saturday at the Downtown Wine Stroll to take stickers – I Wish This Was – fill in the blank and then stick them on empty store windows t

Imagine that empty storefront in downtown as an artisan bakery. Instead of the bleak cement slab, there are black-and-white tiles and tables to meet with friends or co-workers. Instead of a “for lease” sign, the greeting reads, “fresh croissants and coffee.”

And instead of that musty smell that ekes from the abandoned building, imagine the smell of homemade blueberry muffins wafting out to the street, tempting even the staunchest dieter.

Those who come out to enjoy the Downtown Art and Wine Stroll Saturday afternoon are invited to get their creative juices flowing and brainstorm what they want to see happen with the empty storefronts by applying stickers that begin with the phrase “I wish this was.”

Guests are free to write whatever they want in the blank space on the vinyl easy-to-remove sticker, and then slap them on the window of the empty store, breathing new ideas to the numerous lifeless buildings on Monterey Street.  

Gary Walton, downtown property owner and business enthusiast, brought the idea to Gilroy after reading about the stickers being used to revitalize other downtowns around the country.

“The possibilities are endless, and this is kind of a way for the community to voice what they want to see in downtown,” Walton said.

Walton said the stickers are a way to garner enthusiasm about downtown from locals as well as inspire building owners and entrepreneurs alike.

“Who knows, maybe an idea will strike a future entrepreneur to say ‘Hey, maybe I’ll start a bakery there,’” Walton said.

Perhaps the combination of good company, plenty of wine and the stickers will get people brainstorming. Walton hopes that people will talk about businesses they’ve seen in other cities that they would support in Gilroy.

Tammy Brownlow, president of the Economic Development Corporation, said there are currently 15 empty storefronts in downtown Gilroy.

The idea for “I wish this was” stickers began in New Orleans in 2010 during the rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, when vacant buildings ruled the city. Designed by artist and urban planner Candy Chang, the simple stickers caught on in New Orleans and spread to other cities in need of revival.

Walton presented the idea to the downtown Gilroy advocacy group he founded, Rally Round Downtown, and donated the money to buy 250 stickers from Chang’s website which he plans to pass out on Saturday.

Walton believes that if people contribute ideas for downtown businesses, they are more likely to take ownership and support those businesses once they open.

“This can help people recognize that this is their downtown,” Walton said.

Walton plans to take photos of all the store windows and compile a video of all the different suggestions, as well as post a list online. The stickers will be left up for a couple of weeks after the event.

Amber Madrone, who has owned Mango Street Kids downtown for almost four years, and is president of the Downtown Business Association said she thinks the stickers will help people focus on the potential of downtown in a positive way.

“What better way to know what our community wants than to ask them,” Madrone said. “I think this is a simple, concrete way to get feedback.”

Madrone thinks that allowing the stickers to piggyback off the energy of the Wine Stroll will make it all the more successful. Saturday’s weather forecast of 80 degree sunshine is likely to make the fourth annual Wine Stroll another “smashing success” – last year about 580 people partook in the festivities.

Madrone said the Wine Stroll gives a healthy boost to downtown businesses, which helps the entire city.

Jane Howard, Gilroy Welcome Center director, laughed when she remembered how four years ago people didn’t believe that anyone would want to go downtown for a wine stroll.

“It turned out to be such a success we had to turn people away,” Howard said.

The impact of independent businesses to the local economy is significant: a study by Civic Economics, an economic think-tank based in Chicago, showed that 45 cents for every dollar spent at a local business generated secondary local spending, compared to only 14 cents at large corporate retailers.

“Our downtown businesses are small businesses and they are important to the economy and important to the city,” Walton said.

But Walton understands that it’s tough times for local business owners, as he reflected on his own unsuccessful attempt in running The Lizarran, the Spanish tapas restaurant in the Old City Hall building on Monterey and Sixth streets that closed in 2011.

“I thought the community would have really gone for Spanish cuisine, but I was wrong,” Walton said. “Maybe I should have had people put stickers on the Old City Hall building to see what they would have wanted.”

Walton didn’t quit when The Lizarran closed. Since then, he has initiated the three-member Rally Round Downtown group, which organizes events in downtown to garner enthusiasm for local businesses.

If the “I wish this was” sticker project turns out to be fruitless, Walton has other ideas up his sleeve.

“I say, try everything. There’s no magic bullet when it comes to downtown. You have to keep doing things. Not talking, but actually doing,” Walton said. “Some ideas are going to work, some aren’t. But you keep trying.”

The Downtown Art & Wine Stroll is Saturday, May 19 from 2 to 6 p.m. Downtown businesses are partnering with 15 local wineries, and for $25 in advance (or $35 at the door), receive a wine glass for tasting. Art from 22 local artists will be on display, as well as a sampling of classic cars. Several stages in downtown will offer live music throughout the afternoon. Advance tickets are available until 1:55 p.m. on Saturday.

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