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The Crystal Ball Looks Bright For Downtown Martinez

A burgeoning dining and music scene is about to get supplemented with more even more restaurants.

With the demise of the redevelopment conundrum, downtown Martinez is facing perhaps the brightest future it’s had since the ferry stopped running, and Sun Valley Mall opened in 1968. While we will probably never be the economic engine we were in the first half of the last century, all signs are pointing to a very bright future indeed for downtown Martinez.

Let me explain.

I have no pom-poms. I have no dog in the fight. I love the small town flavor and feel of this place, and while I would love to see the kind of growth that would bring parking and traffic problems to our area, I’m fine with things also staying essentially as they are. But things don’t do that. Life is change, and no matter how hard we resist it, change comes.

Change has already come downtown. There is a vital dining and music scene happening right now. more or less led the way, and showed everyone that there is a definite local market for music. has had music for years, and continues to provide a popular venue for rock bands. And now, so does . has live classical guitar, and the has a robust music scene in the back room, which is where the city council and board of supervisors used to cut deals when the place was Amato’s. has become a major music venue, and there is Karaoke every Tuesday at . has an open mike on Wednesdays, and is gearing up for weekend music. Each weekend is sold out at the . The continues to bring popular productions to the Campbell, which means more people dining locally.

That’s right now. But there are rumbles afoot of even more to come.

The word is that the Moose Lodge is getting ready to become a major new restaurant. Details are sketchy, but things look good for the future of that building.

The Taqueria Los Toros is said to be making way for a pizza parlor run by a very popular local caterer. If that comes to pass, it will be a welcome event.

And there is word that a cloth napkin Italian restaurant is coming to town, courtesy of the owner of Pleasant Hill’s Zio Fredo’s, in the spot on Escobar where the old China Garden used to be.

And this is the final weekend of The Station (formerly Ferry Street Station), but I’m told that the same owner of Zio Fredo’s is considering moving into that location as well.

The City Council tonight will declare 610 Court St. surplus property, in preparation to sell it and 630 Court St. to a local developer who has plans to turn the block into a nice restaurant, bakery, and offices.

These are rumors, but they are substantial ones, and at least most of them are likely to take place. These are not the kind of things you hear about an area that is in the doldrums. Yes, doldrums is where we have been for years, but here comes change.

As the county moves out, and the merchants downtown learn to live without the daily lunch crowd county employees used to provide, we can see the businesses slowly growing toward a more robust night life, with destination restaurants and music spots.

This can only mean positive changes for the area, as more people come to associate our city with dining and music, instead of jury duty and bail bond companies. And if it turns out we never attract a Nordstrom or a Neiman Marcus to our downtown, well, we’ll just have to learn to live with that somehow. 

Marlene Lerner-Bigley March 22, 2012 at 06:28 AM
Okay please explain to me again why Starbucks and McDonald's are forbidden to offer their services after 7pm? If and when Martinez starts to build itself back up (Gosh I hope I'm alive to see that!) will the city managers give these 2 businesses a break? It has always been my thought that we try and bring in major stores that might want satellite offices. I do understand that the idea is to keep the city unique without having any commercial businesses but quite frankly, MTZ needs some downtown revenue. Oh and I'm all for those pockets on Majn Street!
Patrick J. McNamara March 22, 2012 at 01:01 PM
Are Starbucks and McDonald's "forbidden" to stay open after 7pm? Who, pray tell, has the authority to issue that edict? It's always been my understanding that they close earlier based on a careful study of sales and foot traffic. I'm sure if customers were downtown until later in the evening in big enough numbers, that they would stay open for business.
Chris Kapsalis March 22, 2012 at 01:22 PM
I remember some rules for a McDonalds to move downtown there, not sure about starbucks. Starbucks has been open late a few times I remember, like for events etc in the past. But fast food franchises I'm sure fall under a whole other zoning / rules thing then a locally owned restaurant would.
Jim Caroompas (Editor) March 22, 2012 at 01:59 PM
McDonald's and Starbucks make their own decisions about closing time. It has nothing to do with edicts from the city.
Chris Kapsalis March 22, 2012 at 02:21 PM
Well I hope there is a push to stay open later down there. I think if some struggle through word might get out and more poeple will come after hours. Was thinking last night how this could impact the local economey and it is huge. Just the jobs it might create. You might even see those who left wanting to relocate back here not too far in the future, when an office downtown will look really good. We have so much already downtown it's all set to take off. Open studios and the Art Gallop will also be going strong again soon so keep an eye out for that.
Withmar March 22, 2012 at 04:01 PM
The Mcdonalds put a buger shop out of buiness at that time as Starbucks took out the original Legal grounds. Corprate verses small Business. We forget the impact over time.
Patrick J. McNamara March 22, 2012 at 07:21 PM
I think it was the free will of customers deciding for themselves where to spend their own money that led to the decisions of some downtown establishments to close (or in the case of Legal Grounds, to relocate closer to Starbucks...ironically). I can't remember which burger place you refer to though. There are many reasons eateries fail, not all having to do with outside competition. Not all "corporate" eateries are unhealthy or villainous. Not all mom and pop eateries are healthy and virtuous. Given enough time for trial and error, our palates and digestive tracts will guide us to the eateries most favorable to our wallets and our tastes. I am a big fan of having a crowded field of contestants for our dining dollars downtown. When a culinary district achieves a certain critical mass, people begin to treat the area as a destination without knowing ahead of time just where they may dine that night. Instead, they embark on a strolling treasure hunt, seeing what strikes their fancy. It is just that kind of ambling foot traffic that becomes a catalyst for downtown renaissance.
Withmar March 23, 2012 at 03:02 PM
Pushing out small operators is the issue and yes those two business where pushed out by the corporate models. And local owners closed there businesses.
Patrick J. McNamara March 23, 2012 at 04:15 PM
I don't believe that is the issue at all. Growing a successful downtown eatery district is the issue. The rest will take care of itself, as long as stomachs growl, good smells fill the air and parking exists. Legal Grounds still exists. Many "small" (meaning, I guess, non-franchised) operators are thriving downtown as we blather on here. Why are they not being pushed out? I will tell you why. They have good food, good service, cleanliness, good fiscal discipline, and no-excuses tenacity. Most "small" operators are corporations. "Corporate" is not the villainous term you mean to employ, though it has been shown to be an effective partisan dog whistle. Maybe "big" or "regional" or "national" or "popular" are better terms for those Darth Vaders of cuisine who seek to slaughter the virtuous common man? In all successful culinary districts, however, unique and well-run locally devised establishments seem to always beat out the franchised food outlets. Hungry diners with money, curiosity and free will always seem to make it so.The redeveloped (contrived) Pleasant Hill downtown is full of "corporate" eateries by design. I believe that will evolve back to normal eventually. Normal...is more like North Beach in SF. Do small operators fail there? Sure. But in a successful culinary district, an empty space never stays "For Lease" very long.
Withmar March 23, 2012 at 05:19 PM
The Mcdonalds was brought up and thus the history of the lost of locally owned and operated businesses which is a related issue argueing about terms is not.. Many know the resuls of box types of any size: closeing local busnesss and emptying towns like ours, less we forget.
Patrick J. McNamara March 23, 2012 at 05:59 PM
Sorry Julian. I think you are tilting at windmills.
Withmar March 23, 2012 at 08:23 PM
No, local Hardware store, Drugstore, Grocerystore, Shoestore,Cloths Store,Hobbie shop, Paint Store all locally owned and operated. Windmills were out in the valley and canyon,some still stand.
Jessie Roberts March 23, 2012 at 11:11 PM
I think it's a great movement for Martinez to increase it's night scene. A push have more retail shops to support the walking traffic would entice people to stay longer and it would be great if they could mandate that the bail bonds and lawyers do not get prime retail space on the downtown blocks. Maybe they should all occupy the old county offices and leave the downtown for the community...
Anne Mobley March 23, 2012 at 11:32 PM
Right on, Jessie. If the City Council wanted a vibrant downtown, they would establish a moratorium on offices at ground level on Main Street, preferring the ground level for retail, restaurants, and personal services like beauty salons, nail shops, cleaners, therapeudic massage, exercise studios, etc. It has been done in other communities over the years. I know you can't tell building owners who they can and cannot rent to, but it would help them find the right fit for their buildings as well as helping make our downtown successful again with all the retail it had in the past. Some building owners are out of towners who have no clue what is needed downtown. But, let's face it, downtown Martinez has the best per square foot rental fees around. Building owners would not have to wait too long for tenants. Merchants tried staying open on Thursday nights, but it did not really work since not all businesses were open. And merchants did not want the extra expense of utilities and staffing when it did not pay off in sales. Main Street Martinez spearheads an open house during the holidays where businesses stay open later than usual and they will most likely do it again this year. When I shop, I like to go from store to store, but in downtown, you have to go block to block for retail which disconnects the businesses for the shopper. That is not a good situation.
Jessie Roberts March 23, 2012 at 11:42 PM
I completely agree Anne, while I am not wanting Martinez to become Walnut Creek, what it does have going for it is the great walkability and large variety of retail, including many small boutique shops. It keeps patrons around for longer and encourages them to stay and explore.
Patrick J. McNamara March 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM
You are absolutely right Jessie. One of the reasons that Costco enjoys so much better sales than other big boxes is the "treasure hunt" they create by shuffling the merchandise around every month. Kind of forced browsing. It's what Walnut Creek does well with its variety of retail and dining, making it a place to just go and walk around until something to buy or eat strikes your fancy. The great walkability you noted is key.
Douglas Stewart March 24, 2012 at 03:03 AM
Mcdonalds is a franchise which means it has local owners and is locally operated
Paul L Wilson March 24, 2012 at 06:30 PM
This all sound really nice but after you and the family have eat dinner what do you do with the kids? Dump them at the movies or hirer a baby sitter so you can finish off your night going the pub and music crawl through downtown. It sound like Martinez of the future need a little more full family activates?
Patrick J. McNamara March 24, 2012 at 08:10 PM
Suggestions?
Paul L Wilson March 25, 2012 at 02:51 AM
How about a marketing plan and a business plan or even just a good old common sense approach to establishing a direction that will bring families downtown and business model so their will be something that interest people of all ages to make them want to come and walk our streets. Our city has been so lost in the redevelopment schemes of the past and even purchasing building and properties that lost sight of the present.
Patrick J. McNamara March 25, 2012 at 04:00 AM
And the sorts of specific examples that might result from such a "... marketing plan and a business plan or even just a good old common sense approach to establishing a direction that will bring families downtown and business model so their will be something that interest people of all ages to make them want to come and walk our streets..." ........ ??? Describe the vision, Paul. Don't be afraid. You're among friends.
Paul L Wilson March 25, 2012 at 05:40 AM
Drugstore you remember Valco, hobby store you remember Al’s paints, toy store, cooking supply with cooking lessons, hardware store, grocery store, men’s and woman’s clothing stationary store you remember Reed, jewelry and watch repair. Come on you can remember all those stories. Now you tell me what you are going to put in to bring those families with children back to downtown. Do you have a vision for them Patrick , don’t be afraid. You're among friends.
Chris Kapsalis March 25, 2012 at 03:02 PM
I would love to open a gallery/art supply store on Main Street someday, but it is almost impossible to compete with places like Michales that have such buying power and a more centeralize location. Even with an 10 mile drive round trip and the time it takes to drive, it would still be very hard to compete with them. I still think if small buisness united somehow in buying power they could close the gap and compete with large chain stores.
Linda Meza March 25, 2012 at 03:35 PM
Chris, the hitch in this is the idea that you need to compete head to head. As the millenials have demonstrated there is a willingness to spend a little extra IF it means that purchase satisfies more than one need. Taking your example of an art store; if that store stocked recycled materials, fair trade products, plant based colors, etc. I'm willing to bet you could carve out a niche group of artists/hobbyists who are environmentally minded and would be willing to travel to your location. The power of small businesses isn't in trying to scale large chain options or prices, but in first determining who their demographic is and catering to their needs.
Chris Kapsalis March 25, 2012 at 05:49 PM
Good idea Linda. One time someone asked me if I knew where that one thing came from in my paint, they said Blue Whales?? WoW! No way. Anyway, that is good thinking.
Patrick J. McNamara March 25, 2012 at 08:02 PM
Why thank you Paul. I believe I will. You probably knew I would, eh? Yes, I remember all those fine establishments from my youth. As long as we are putting in our requests for having government determine (in their infinite wisdom) who and what type of businesses should occupy our downtown area, I would like to put in a good word for the slot car racing, pool hall and pinball arcades I and my friends spent way too many hours and quarters on 40 years ago. But there is a problem: aside from basic planning and zoning issues, the city is (and should be) relatively powerless to assign certain store fronts to a pre-planned nostalgic reinvention of Mayberry or Martinez or wherever. Even if such power did reside in city hall, trying to craft a downtown based on nostalgic childhood memories would likely be an utter failure and disaster. Whether we like it or not, times have changed. All those stores you mentioned began their tenure as replacements for other stores and hotels and various establishments whose time had also passed. No doubt 60 years ago, our parents and grandparents were bemoaning the fact that there was no longer a good steam laundry, plywood factory or livery stable downtown. But what our grandparents, parents and now we must realize is that those intrepid business owners who risk everything to start a business downtown will have done their homework and due diligence. Cheap rents do not inspire entrepreneurial risk taking. Cont'd...
Patrick J. McNamara March 25, 2012 at 08:03 PM
Paul, I find it more than just a little ironic that those who fought against the idea of redevelopment for so many years now advocate central planning in the downtown. "Marketing plan," "business plan," "establishing a direction...” don’t you realize that at its core, that is exactly what redevelopment is? It is using the power of government (eminent domain, distribution of retained tax revenue and autocratic power) to usurp private risk-taking and instead appointing a cabal of (presumably) wise visionaries in city hall to create a downtown, like a child playing with Legos. Sometimes it works out fine. All too often, however, what results is a very expensive, modern looking, attractive ghost development. People buy goods and services differently now than they did even 20 years ago. Nobody gathers their family together to go shopping for pleasure. Sorry. But enough of my nay-saying. Readers of Martinez Patch comments probably know I nag you every now and then to stop nay-saying and instead share your vision. Now you have delivered, so it's only fair I do the same. Cont'd...
Patrick J. McNamara March 25, 2012 at 08:04 PM
Realize that a vision is a destination. We can’t copy other cities and towns, although we can try to emulate them. I have often wondered about which other place some people were trying to create here in Martinez over the years as everyone was arguing about redevelopment. While some cities like Concord tried to redevelop based on “Walnut Creek envy,” I think many Martinez folk had different models. Some perhaps hoped we would gentrify into Sausalito. Some perhaps hoped we would retreat into rural, bohemian enclaves like Bolinas or Cotati. All of these dreams are fine, but of course we can no more become some other town than I can become Elvis by growing large mutton-chop sideburns. We have to be ourselves. That said, I believe there are many examples of civic adaptation that have created very good places to live, raise a family, enjoy recreation, and whose downtown is lively, quaint, and dynamic. Places where hotels, restaurants, music & galleries thrive. A good example of a place like this is Fort Bragg, along the Mendocino coast. For many years a town with a couple of anchor industries (timber & fishing), it has adapted to a non-industrial economy by drawing visitors and attracting residents who want to live there even if it is not cheap to do so. But, we cannot just become Fort Bragg, or Sausalito, or Bolinas or Cotati. Nor can we become Martinez, California circa 1962. The future beckons. Cont’d…
Patrick J. McNamara March 25, 2012 at 08:05 PM
Whatever model town we individuals harbor in our minds, I think we agree that we want a downtown with bustling pedestrian appeal and a variety of viable shops, eateries and other diversions. We agree on this because we know that shopping for basic provisions is no longer done on Main Street, USA. We must not be in denial about that. Before we set sail for this destination, we must first set our waypoints by which to navigate there. First things first, and second & third things second and third. You mentioned that there must be things that entire families will want to come downtown to do together. I could not agree more with you on this, Paul (mark the calendar!). Where I think you erred was to think in terms of what the family would do after dining at one of our many fine eateries. Better I believe to realize that the family activities will come before the restaurants. The music and pub crawls will be primarily the attraction of the adults. The overarching point is, though, that activities and events on a routine basis begets outside revenue and outside visitors who discover Martinez for the first time. It also provides a foundation for downtown merchant stability. That is step one. That’s where we are now. Cont’d…
Patrick J. McNamara March 25, 2012 at 08:05 PM
But what can provide that first waypoint? Recreation. It’s already happening. Where in days gone by we could only speculate about what draws outside visitors to downtown Martinez, internet info exchanges like Yelp.com and the like provide actual insights about what outsiders notice and like about a place. From internationally recognized bocce events, to sturgeon derbies that create 500-vessel motorboat regattas from our marina, to last weekend’s youth basketball tournament at recently opened Nor-Cal Sports that brought 300 families from all over California to downtown Martinez to spend the weekend, and discover this cool little town… “wholesome” family activities are indeed coming to town. And, they are heading straight to the waterfront. And, its potential has barely been tapped. As you know, I have advocated for a waterfront recreation district to assume responsibility of the marina and the uplands north of the railroad tracks. I believe that tastefully executed recreational opportunities in partnership with EBRPD and its values, along with a vibrant, active marina and maritime amenities, will not only provide the catalyst for downtown Martinez’ renaissance, but would also provide the impetus and financial viability for catamaran ferry service to that waterfront, further benefitting the downtown in particular and the city as a whole. And as Roxanne Cole said, “You can’t do that one, Walnut Creek!”

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