Written by: Executive Director Dominic Tartaglia
Healthy Communities Are Happy Communities
San Luis Obispo has been coined the “Happiest City in America” many times and as a native of our beloved town, I’m glad that SLO is where I hang my hat at night. It has been a couple of years since we had such a flattering title bestowed upon us and in that time I have spent many hours analyzing what it could be that makes people here so happy. From what I have distilled from all of that analysis is this; there are a lot of reasons to be happy in San Luis Obispo. One commonality of all of those reasons, however, is that this is a healthy community. San Luis Obispo is healthy both economically and physically and it is because residents demand healthy options.
We are fortunate to live in a community that sets priorities for clean air and open spaces while encouraging projects like Cal Poly’s HotHouse in the heart of the city. The positive impacts that an increase in open space and amenities like the new skate park are felt by residents of all walks of life and often times cross multiple demographics, not too differently than the Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market or many of the events that the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association produces. It really is no wonder why our office produces a high volume of top notch activities; it comes down to the need of residents, and guests, to have a sense of place where they can come together and share the fresh air, live music, delicious food and warm smiles with their neighbors. Concerts in the Plaza was originally cited as one of the main draws to the city that make it so happy. This year as we kick of our twentieth year of live and local music it seems that they hit the nail on the head with that title. Twenty years is a long time for any event to be around and we see that as an assuring nod from the community that we must be doing things well. On June 12th, we’ll be sure to carry on that tradition with the indie rock sound of The Lakes kicking off our 14-week concert series, presented by Sunset Honda. Every Friday night from 5-8 PM you can listen to free live music at the historic Mission Plaza. Ride your bike and valet it for free, compliments of Cal Poly Downtown.
There is more to a healthy community than music though. Things like shopping for local produce and goods on a Thursday night, eating on a creek side patio and dozens of open space trails that afford hikers and bikers world-class vistas are what keep our community physically healthy. Did you know that many Downtown restaurants purchase their fresh produce from the Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market? It’s true. If you get to the market at 6 PM, chances are you will see chefs wheeling carts of produce back to their restaurants to serve hungry patrons. Meanwhile, residents are lining up to buy the same produce from booths at the Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market. For some residents like Fire Chief Garret Olson the market is a weekly tradition for quality time spent with family and friends. It has been rumored that there exists an “Olson experience,” a tour that includes purchasing fresh produce, listening to each of the live music acts, purchasing a wood fired pizza and finally settling in to a local wine bar for some social time. Walking through the clean evening air, tasting fresh ingredients, and relaxation with good company is undeniably good for us. Local restaurateurs recognize that customers want fresh local produce and a cool vibe to enjoy it in and that is why they replicate that experience in their establishments. As a community, we are the happy beneficiaries of that keen observation.
People don’t just come Downtown to eat healthy and have fun though. We found that many locals make getting to Downtown just as fun through healthy choices of riding their bike or walking along the multitude of paths and bike routes. The next time you are at the Market take a look at where the SLO County Bicycle Coalition’s bike valet is located, it is not an accident that it is at the intersection of the Bill Roalman Bike Boulevard and our Market. Each year, approximately 3,396 bikes are valeted at the Market, free of charge. This represents a huge population of riders and we hope to double that number this year as bicycle awareness improves and the community support for sharrows and better bike lanes is growing.
When we look at all of the physical benefits of having an active community with access to safe alternatives to driving, there is a deeper understanding of their significance to the economic health of our community. The obvious things are that people are conducting business if they are shopping for produce or buying a drink at Concerts in the Plaza, which further implies that they are gainfully employed and have some form of discretionary income which is a positive indicator that our local economy is healthy. The less obvious things are measured by a series of things that the SLO Downtown Association observes and encourages.
We are a part of the National Main Street Association and participate in its Four Point Approach that states economic restructuring is imperative to having a healthy community. Economic restructuring includes preserving historic spaces and utilizing them to better meet the needs of a new marketplace while maintaining the historic character of that place. If you look at the Downtown as a whole that is exactly what is going on. Over the years many hours and careers were dedicated to setting policies in motion to make sure that our Downtown storefronts kept their unique architecture and that the open-air feel of shopping along a main street was not forgotten. In buildings that were once hotel buildings we find a diverse mix of shops and restaurants. Furthermore, the Four Point Approach says that retaining and expanding successful businesses while encouraging competitiveness that attracts new business is a sign of a thriving economy. In the last year we have seen local businesses really take hold Downtown including several new coffee shops and restaurants as well as some of our retailers. As they set their roots down in our district they have also expanded to other markets but still call SLO home. The customers that make those businesses successful are the same residents that walk down for produce and pizza on Thursday night and come back again for summer concerts on Fridays. Each trip Downtown is an unofficial vote of confidence that SLO is economically healthy and they are enjoying the privilege of living here.
At the end of the day when I go home and reflect on my day in the office I give thanks for working in a great community and I smile knowing that our residents live a happy and healthy life. Our Downtown is just a piece of the puzzle but I believe that the dedication of business owners, public service employees and the amazing loyalty of our residents to this community is the medicine that keeps us all healthy.