Downtown Perspective

by Bettina Swigger, CEO, Downtown SLO

In 1772, when the San Luis Obispo Mission was built, the fathers of our community could not have conceived the bright future of this town. Now, nearly 250 years into our city’s evolution, Downtown SLO is at a pivotal moment. It is critical that downtown must remain economically viable for the good of the business-owners, residents, and visitors. Indeed, our whole region depends on that success.

A thriving downtown is the heart of a community. Like a heart, it pumps vital life force to the rest of the region, enlivening far beyond the businesses, people, and institutions that live downtown. Like a heart, Downtown SLO has a pulse, with the beat of Concerts in the Plaza, Farmers’ Market, parades, countless other cultural celebrations, and the constant thrum of footsteps of residents and visitors moving through it day and night. Downtown is more than a place to take care of business — it is a place to gather; to connect to one another, to slow down and savor life’s moments. Downtown should belong to everybody, and everybody should feel as if they belong downtown.

With the County seat and the City of San Luis Obispo offices in downtown, the population of people in Downtown each weekday can measure up to 80,000 people, essentially doubling the population of the city. And on the weekend, tourists flock to enjoy our tree-lined streets, special shops, and varied cultural institutions, restaurants, and nightlife.

With so many different stakeholders, a changing skyline, and demographic shifts in the community, we in downtown are faced with many challenges. The closing of Diablo Canyon signals the need for expanded efforts to retain and grow local businesses, and downtown must be at the center of those conversations. What will San Luis Obispo look like in 2072, 300 years after the Mission was built? In 50 years, will the future leaders look back at 2019-2020 as a moment of profound catalyst and change? I think so.

Over its history, downtown has been a trendsetter in many regards, from its forward-thinking creation of the walkable Mission Plaza several decades ago to the recently-revitalized Creamery. Both of these examples took tearing up asphalt to build spaces for community gathering: Mission Plaza removed a street, and the Creamery removed a parking lot. You know that Joni Mitchell song about paving paradise to put up a parking lot? We did the opposite here in SLO – we tore down parking lots to put up paradise. But don’t worry- there is plenty of parking in the City structures!

There are many other historical precedents for Downtown SLO taking bold chances to be resilient and remain vital. With the help and input of its 600+ members, Downtown SLO can lead the way in cultivating experience-based businesses, driving tourism, enhancing liveability, and creating more opportunities for people to come together. With two major hotels opening downtown this year (Hotel Cerro and Hotel San Luis Obispo), a high volume of tourists will be coming into the area, and they will be eager for opportunities to explore the area on foot. These visitors will seek shopping, dining and drinking activities, and through it all, they will be seeking authentic, meaningful connection to the places they visit. Every store, every restaurant, every historic site, every piece of public art, every business, and cultural institution will play a role.

There are some important discussions ahead. Conversations about homeless services, parking and access, public safety, and beautification, are unfolding daily with our partners at the City of SLO and in concert with downtown property and business owners. But as traditional retail morphs, tourism expands, Downtown SLO has ample opportunity to head in exciting new directions, and has an important responsibility to its diverse stakeholders to be bold, brave, responsive, and inclusive.

In addition to our organization’s efforts to create a hospitable and welcoming environment on behalf of our business members, we are currently engaged in an effort to create a new Property-Based Business Improvement District, or PBID, which would dramatically expand our ambassador program, add more clean and safe services to our existing structure, and implement services to help address the homelessness issues in our district. PBIDs have been effective in more than 100 cities in California and in more than 1,000 communities all over the U.S. and Canada. Please read more about the PBID and how you can support our efforts here.  

Since January 2019, more than 10 new businesses have opened downtown, and we showcase those in our Business Spotlights on our website and in print monthly in the Central Coast Journal. Make sure to follow us on Instagram to see our daily interactions showcasing the story of Downtown SLO every day.

If you haven’t been Downtown in a while, come check us out. I’m certain you will be surprised and delighted by what you see.


Written by Bettina Swigger, CEO, Downtown SLO (c) March 2019. Email Bettina.