The Santa Barbara City Council has given City Administrator Paul Casey a green light to explore creating an economic development department and hiring a director to run it.
“Absolutely, we need an economic development director department,” said Councilmember Kristen Sneddon at a July 25 public hearing on a consultant’s downtown revitalization report. “We need to move this forward as quickly as possible.”
Although no formal decisions were made, council members spoke in support of the recommendation from Manhattan Beach-based consultant Kosmont & Associates.
The economic development department suggestion echoed during nearly two hours of public comment, including Downtown Santa Barbara Executive Director Carrie Kelly, who noted that many cities in the Tri-Counties have them.
Kosmont presented its study and recommendations to revitalize downtown and State Street at the meeting. A key point was that an economic development director must have appropriate power to accomplish city revitalization goals and that takes political will.
Some speakers said Casey should hire Nina Johnson, senior assistant to the city administrator, to serve as the economic development director but council members said the city should conduct a search.
“If this is so important, which it apparently is, then let’s not do it in a hurried manner,” said Councilmember Randy Rowse at the meeting. “Let’s find the right person.”
He added that the city needed to ensure that “after all this time and effort and talk that we go somewhere.”
In January, the city budgeted $85,000 for Kosmont to create an assessment of a wide range of issues including business retention, vacancies, land use regulations and economic development.
The nearly 90-page report comes nearly a year after an August 2018 city council meeting in which community members and stakeholders pushed for solutions to a continued saga of vacancies, homelessness and ongoing retail slump along State Street.
Santa Barbara’s downtown retail vacancy rates are higher than the overall regional market, and State Street corridor retailers have seen annual sales decline by 15 percent even as countywide retail sales have increased in the last five years.
Another key finding was that asking commercial lease rates on State Street are higher than neighboring markets, although they have begun declining. Of the total 1.5 million square feet of retail space in the downtown, about one-third, or 400,000 to 500,000 square feet, is not economically supportable without additional workers, residents or customers downtown, the report states.
Kosmont also identified millennials as the largest demographic group in Santa Barbara, at 28 percent of the population. It suggested this demographic should be taken into consideration for future downtown retail and housing uses and strategies.
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