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Downtown Santa Monica Inc. Surveys a Year of Success  

By Melonie Magruder
Lookout Staff

August 19, 2011 – The annual meeting for Downtown Santa Monica Inc. was held at the Santa Monica Women’s Bay Club Thursday morning to give stakeholders, business owners and city officials a full review of the last year’s activities; and if there was a slightly self-congratulatory tone to the event, statistics rolled out by featured speakers justified every kudo.

Downtown Santa Monica Inc. CEO Kathleen Rawson shares
Santa Monica success stories. Photo by Melonie Magruder.

“Isn’t it wonderful what a community working together can accomplish,” Mayor Richard Bloom exclaimed. “I want to thank everyone involved, from staff to volunteers for helping to make us thrive.”

And the city, by all accounts, is thriving. According to a comprehensive rundown of business activity by City Manager Rod Gould, Santa Monica has the lowest office vacancy rate of anywhere in Los Angeles County.

Despite a recession-battered economy nationwide, Santa Monica’s hotel occupancy rates and room rates are up over last year, retail sales have jumped and city revenues have increased, allowing continued funding for homeless support and special projects.

“We’ve been described as the Silicon Beach in business journals,” Gould said. “But I’m paid to worry and there’s a lot to worry about these days. So it’s time to reinvest in our city to insure an ongoing renaissance.”

Gould then gave a laundry list of upcoming projects that will yield jobs, business activity and, ultimately, city revenue, including the openings of the Shore Hotel and a new hotel at 710 Wilshire, a city landmark. There is also a major redo of the Miramar Hotel, the AMC theatres and several residential projects around the city.

Increased parking for city structures, a redesigned Palisades Garden Walk and groundbreaking for the Expo rail line will, as Gould said, “keep the good times rolling.”

DTSM CEO Kathleen Rawson cited surveys of local stakeholders, including business owners and managers, and commercial and residential property owners who rated community characteristics like overall appearance, cleanliness, availability of parking structures and condition of the homeless.

Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said they felt “very optimistic” for the future.

DTSM Vice President Debbie Lee then outlined exactly how and what they are doing to encourage the city’s ongoing civic health, citing such DTSM programs as the Ambassadors and international marketing efforts.

“Our Ambassador program has been big on quality of life issues,” Lee said, speaking of the crew stationed around downtown to help visitors and locals, using up-to-the-minute technology like iPod Touches to find instant answers.

“They help find lost cars. They report problems. They even help you find public restrooms and that’s a big issue. Last year, our ambassadors had over 140,000 reported interactions,” Lee said.

DTSM forms strategic public/private relationships to ensure enhanced maintenance for public spaces. This keeps parking structures, lampposts and green areas clean, power-washed and graffiti-free. And the number of reported visits to public restrooms last year? 367,365.

Along with boots on the ground, DTSM surveyed extensively to find where the heaviest visitorship comes from and engaged “mystery shoppers” to sample retailers’ ability to put Santa Monica’s best foot forward. Gratifyingly, they gave an average score of 3.7 (out of 4) for the year’s aggregate visits.

But true branding requires a complex network of efforts on many fronts and DTSM Senior Marketing and Communications Manager Ashley Walkley enumerated the city marketing thrusts, from the subtle, but effective, identity switch of turning the Bayside District into Downtown Santa Monica, to managing public perception, to assisting in promoting local business. They’ve even tapped into Foursquare Media, a GPS-based app for iPhones that helps users navigate they city.

“We’ve invested big in web and social media,” Walkley said. “We can track and measure web commentary on the city and help to encourage a dialogue online. This builds awareness.”

It also comes in handy in publicizing city events like Winterlit and GLOW, the huge public art event held every two years. DowntownSM.com has already received more than 13 million hits. CEO Rawson was only half-kidding when she said, “I even impress myself.”

Keynote speakers of the day were Crissy Fanganello, director of policy and planning for the Denver Department of Public Works and Anna Jones, vice president of Progressive Urban Management Associates. The women detailed their Living Streets initiative that helped transform downtown Denver, Colorado.

“We wanted to think about our streets on a programmatic level and look through the lens of a travel shed in the city,” Fanganello said. “How, exactly, are people moving around?”

It’s not a rhetorical question. One third of Americans don’t drive, so public transport must be a large part of the solution. Yet many cities try to handle burgeoning populations with greater traffic and parking opportunities for private transit.

They cited the futurist Glen Heimstra: “Trying to cure traffic congestion with more capacity is like trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt.”

They also said that Americans spend more time stuck in traffic during their lives than on vacation.

“Living Streets are about economic development, fiscal return, and public and environmental health,” Jones said. “This comes from creating a more pedestrian-friendly and bike-friendly city.”

Jones cited studies that proved public transport projects create twice the jobs of highway and road projects for single vehicles. Properties located near light rail stations increase value by 15 to 20 percent.

“This is the first generation of American children who might have shorter life spans than their parents due to obesity and environmental problems,” Fanganello said. “Encouraging public transit and cycling will reduce costs for your city all around.”

 


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