Council talks downtown plan to help businesses

Martinez City Council heard reports Wednesday night from the Martinez Chamber of Commerce and Main Street Martinez before discussing ways to help downtown businesses operate successfully as shelter-in-place rules loosen, a big topic caused by the COVID-19 virus,

One proposal is to close Main Street on certain days, in a move similar to past downtown festivals and the ongoing Martinez Farmers Market.

Although details weren’t settled, Councilmembers indicated they were ready to close Main Street to traffic, starting either on Thursday or Friday evenings and continuing through the weekends. Retailers as well as restaurants would be able to extend their footprint onto sidewalks, while the street itself would be a pedestrian thoroughfare.

One option suggested by Vice Mayor Mark Ross is to let businesses decide whether parking spaces at their storefronts should be 15-minute pick up and delivery stops rather than multiple-hour parking areas. Commercial stop areas also could become sites for shoppers to pause for purchase deliveries.

Julie Johnston, President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, described a three-minute survey her agency began distributing Thursday to get “an economic snapshot of businesses in Martinez.” Companies would be asked to describe themselves and how the pandemic has affected them.

She’s also forming a counsel of major employers in the city, because like the small businesses, they also have been affected and are the economic drivers in Martinez.

Johnston said the Chamber is starting a crowdfunding effort for microgrants to supply relief to businesses. “People are so willing to give, I’m confident about that,” she said.

Kara Johnsen, executive director of Main Street Martinez, said her agency already has a crisis resource plan in place, and it’s in its second phase. Initially it offered immediate resources to the downtown business sector, and it’s been promoting the Martinez businesses that have remained open or have online options.

Main Street has been offering contests with prizes of gift cards to businesses and admission to future organization events, she said, and she’s constantly updating the agency’s online and social media presence, and asks businesses to tag her so she can put their information in front of Main Street followers.

Prevented from doing live events like wine strolls, Main Street is experimenting with virtual events, which had mixed initial results. But Johnsen expects future online events to run more smoothly as participants gain experience. And some businesses did well with the initial May activity, she said.

Another offering is “Behind the Mask,” featuring business operators wearing masks, but also giving them a chance to introduce themselves as well as their companies through video clips.

In the future, she’ll launch a “United We Stand” and “Martinez Strong” campaign that will encourage shoppers to return to the city’s downtown area, but that would be coupled with a “Safety First” pledge to assure visitors that stores and restaurants were prepared to let them shop or dine safely.

While the annual Fourth of July events are canceled, she said Main Street needs to be decorated in new flags and storefronts need stars on their windows in celebration of Independence Day and keep the area festive. She also wants to see a return to open air markets.

Councilmember Lara DeLaney said she was glad to hear of the Main Street programs, but said it was the first time she had learned of them. She urged Johnsen to use other promotion options besides social media.

“If you’re not tuned in to Facebook or Instagram, you miss out,” she said.

“I am on Facebook,” Councilmember Noralea Gipner said, but also had not seen information about the programs.

But Ross liked Johnsen’s recommendation, including Johnsen’s urging the city allow some form of part-time closures of Main Street.

Figueroa also spoke of street closures as well as consideration of creating additional “flex space” extensions, such as several restaurants have, especially since some business owners, saying they have small or narrow spaces, would struggle to meet the new health department restrictions for those who want to expand service to the public.

Consideration needs to be made for businesses that aren’t on Main Street, not only those on the downtown side streets but those in shopping centers, some observed, even though shopping centers are private property.

Incorporation of outdoor entertainment from Campbell Theater for those waiting for purchases to be packaged was discussed, and those amusements would be designed to keep people moving, rather than clustering in the area.

Councilmember Debbie McKillop suggested uniform signs rather than inconsistent A-frame markers for businesses, so storefronts are clearly marked.

In addition, the city needs to coordinate with Contra Costa County’s fire protection district and health department when planning for Main Street closures, Mayor Rob Schroder said.

“Let me follow up with Main Street and the Chamber to create a task force,” Figueroa said after taking notes on the Council comments. “Let’s see if we can pull it off.” 

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