Paso Robles Rising

A stricken California town comes back—twice.

By Gillian Klucas

View from City park of Paso Robles Downtown about 1930

Credit: Conference of California Historical Societies

Visiting Paso Robles, Calif., for the first time last summer, I expected the heart of town to be its popular central square, a harmonious blend of well-preserved historic and modern commercial buildings ringing a park complete with fountain, bandstand, playground, and the brick 1908 Carnegie Library, now home of the historical society. Shading the park were the stately valley oaks that give Paso Robles its name (officially El Paso de Robles, Spanish for "Pass of the Oaks" and pronounced "Ro-buhls" by the locals).

But I soon learned that the true hub of Paso Robles is a cluttered office, hidden from view down an alley off the main square, and the woman who presides there. All day long, the office is alive with activity as merchants, volunteers, and city officials come and go, the door propped open invitingly. At first glance, Norma Moye, the executive director of the Paso Robles Main Street Association, seems an unlikely magnet for so much attention. A short, solid grandmother quick to show displeasure, she's a kind of den mother of downtown Paso Robles—ornery, perhaps, yet beloved. For without her, as nearly every insider will tell you, there would be no downtown.

To Moye, downtown is a theater, and its central park, buildings, shops, and restaurants the stage where, for the past 13 years, she has channeled all her efforts into putting on a great show. She started from the low point in the town center's history, when its buildings were rundown—a quarter vacant, the rest housing bars and thrift stores—and the square deserted. As the leader of the local offshoot of the National Trust's Main Street program, Moye and her cadre of volunteers fought to revive the historical and cultural hub of Paso Robles; their achievement is representative of the sort of success the Trust aimed for when it first developed its novel approach to downtown revitalization and the preservation of buildings. This year, as the Main Street program celebrates its 25th anniversary, it can point to hundreds of towns that, like Paso Robles, have reclaimed their faded commercial and community centers.

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