Livermore, California: Celebrating Wine Country

2009 Great American Main Street Award Winner

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Ten years ago, Stephanie Rebiejo moved to Livermore, California, to live in wine country. Back then, she says, "I found myself meeting friends for dinner in Pleasanton as the downtown was filled with restaurants and was always buzzing." With a four-lane highway running through Livermore, it was more common to use the Main Street as an escape route to another destination, rather than a place to shop or meet friends.

Livermore
Before a $12.5 million street improvement project, a highway ran through downtown and kept pedestrians away.

A strong revitalization program, a major transportation and streetscaping project, and the city's commitment to reestablish downtown as the heart of Livermore has transformed the community. Today, Rebiejo says she wouldn't dream of leaving her town for a night out.

And she doesn't have to look beyond her front door to find what she needs. Just 43 miles east of San Francisco, Livermore has become a destination in its own right. The slogan for Downtown Livermore—Live, Shop, Play, and Dine—rings true as the district boasts 119 shops, 51 restaurants, and 20 arts and entertainment venues. In the 54-block downtown, a wide range of businesses offer people a place to run their daily errands as well as plan a special occasion. And in 2005, downtown businesses joined together to offer free wireless Internet, further increasing the commercial district's appeal.

Livermore
Public involvement in the city's visioning process helped determine the atmosphere and appearance that would be achieved by the revitalization effort and street improvement project.

Exciting annual festivals and weekly events make visiting and living in Livermore a truly enjoyable experience. Tuesday Tunes starts the summer weeks with free concerts in the plaza. At the weekly farmers market, the first Thursday of every month features family-oriented entertainment and activities, and every third Thursday is Thirsty Thursday—a local wine tasting that no one wants to miss. More than 150,000 people attend the two-day Livermore Wine Country Festival, which celebrates everything local, from crafts to wine to olive oil.

Livermore's Evolution

Established in 1869, Livermore was the first railroad stop in the Tri-Valley area. Thirty years earlier, much of the town had been Rancho Las Positas property, as a result of a Mexican land grant. The region grew quickly once California was admitted into the Union and continued to expand during the 1849 Gold Rush. The area's economy centered around cattle, then later agriculture and viticulture.

Ironically, the town became a commercial hub thanks to one transportation advancement—the railroad—but suffered from another—the automobile. Cars were the reason farms began sprouting shopping centers and homes instead of produce. This trend continued with the opening of major research facilities—the population quadrupled after laboratories opened on the outskirts of town, and the Interstate freeway system, completed in the early 1970s, sealed Livermore's fate.

In 1985, the City of Livermore formed a Redevelopment Agency and initiated a partnership with the Livermore Chamber of Commerce, downtown merchants and residents, and the California Main Street Office. When the Main Street program began a year later, Livermore's vacancy rate had reached its highest point and the business mix of occupied storefronts was an eclectic collection of bars and consignment shops. The retailers and offices that remained were scattered too sparsely to benefit from customer sharing. Downtown Livermore was no longer the community's center: there were no parks, and the dangerous, loud truck and commuter traffic created an unpleasant atmosphere for customers and investors.

A planning firm led a community visioning process in 2001 to capture stakeholders' ideas for the city's and the downtown's future and discuss the extent and character of new development. The feedback gathered from workshops and a resident questionnaire was used  to develop downtown and general master plans that were adopted by the city in 2004. These documents spelled out a strategy for downtown revitalization, transportation improvements, land-use policies, and design guidelines.

The downtown plan's vision sought to create a strong sense of place, recognize the downtown as the city's center, and design public spaces that would become the community's "living room." The plan put a premium on open space, historic structures, and architectural integrity of new construction. It also aimed to bring housing back to the downtown through new developments and adaptive mixed-use projects.

A significant aspect of downtown's transformation was the $12.5 million streetscape project commenced by the city in 2006. Converting a four-lane highway into a two-lane, pedestrian-focused commercial district effectively gave Main Street back to the city. Construction of the new streetscape began in 2005 and was completed in time for the 2006 holiday shopping season. It's no surprise that downtown has experienced a 15 percent growth in retail sales during the last three years.

The highway rerouting and streetscape project infused confidence among investors, too. Many new projects were launched. Downtown now has a 13-screen movie theater, a 500-seat performing arts center, more than 70,000 square feet of retail space, and more than 250 residential units, with plenty of other projects on the way, as well as a waiting list of business owners looking to get in on the action. There is a new parking garage, additional housing, new hotels, and a streetscape project for another part of downtown in the works.

Livermore endeavors to maintain its connection to the rural landscape that surrounds the city and its heritage. Wineries and vineyards in the countryside continue to influence the downtown's character. As part of the streetscaping improvements, two plazas were created and trellises were added between the diagonal parking bays—a nod to the wine country heritage. Lush trees and planters filled with flowers remind people of the countryside, and the landscaping narrows the street and creates a more intimate and inviting atmosphere. Through Flex Zone parking, during the warmer-weather months, parking spaces are converted into outdoor dining space.

The downtown plan solidifies the community's historic preservation ethic—it not only protects the town's historic resources; it also provides design guidelines to ensure compatible infill and attracts the right investors who share the community's concern for preservation. One exemplary project is the old blacksmith shop rehabilitation. The structure received a stucco makeover while it was being used as a muffler shop. "When driving by, some [people] saw garage doors," says developer Mike Madden. "I saw potential storefronts." Thus, the idea for Blacksmith's Alley was born.

When the construction crew noticed the original blacksmith sign on the brick while they were removing the stucco, they switched gears and began using a more gentle orange juice acid in order to preserve the historic elements that tell the story of the community's western heritage.

The project didn't stop with the building's rehabilitation; the lot's large driveway was turned into a beautiful courtyard with an iron gateway. Historic bricks  from a Livermore brickyard were salvaged from a neighboring demolition and used for the courtyard paths. Today, the space is home to seven boutique wine-tasting rooms featuring Livermore Valley wines at Blacksmith Square.

From Tuesday Tunes to Thirsty Thursdays

Many of the promotions developed by Downtown Livermore, Inc., keep business owners in mind. The Tuesday Tunes concert series gives patrons a reason to come downtown on traditionally low dining sales days. In 2008, Downtown Livermore hosted a new event—Christmas in July—to boost foot traffic during a traditionally slow sales month. Holiday activities and an artificial ice skating rink drew plenty of crowds. The weekly farmers market draws roughly 3,000 people, and the Thirsty Thursday and Family Night bring an additional 1,000 to 2,000 attendees on top of that.

During the two-day Taste of Downtown, 40 businesses hosted a local winery in their establishments and offered a "taste" plate outside of the restaurants. The event sold out and brought 300 tasters, as well as a few thousand other people, to the downtown, which left the business owners feeling pleased with the foot traffic.

Another two-day festival, the annual Livermore Wine Country Festival, the program's largest event, which is now in its 17th year, also pleases merchants. Approximately 150,000 attendees hit the streets and visit businesses to sample Livermore Valley wines. Most merchants and restaurant owners reported last year that they had the best sales weekend of all time, or at the very least, had average or better-than-average Saturday sales, as well as incomparable exposure.

A special retail promotion called "Earlier than the Bird" that encourages shoppers to roll out of bed and into downtown stores to get their holiday shopping done before Black Friday in November has been a hit. Hundreds of pajama-wearing shoppers helped generate strong sales at 7 a.m. in Livermore.

Downtown Livermore, Inc.'s promotions generally not only pay for themselves, but they often turn a profit. Attendance at many of these events has been rising continuously and sponsorship interest has too. For example, while the annual wine festival costs $127,757 to produce, it nets about $155,000 for the program.

The Main Street program also works in partnership with the local access community television station to produce a new episode of "Livermore Life: Your Downtown Magazine Show" each month. The program has a regional viewership and is aired daily. Downtown Livermore Executive Director Rachael Snedecor hosts the show, which promotes events and local establishments and gives people a sneak preview of what downtown has to offer before they leave home. Snedecor says that every business owner whose establishment has been highlighted has been "astounded by the number of patrons who have come in and said, 'I did not even know you were here until I saw you on that Livermore show.'"

In the coming months, Downtown Livermore, Inc., the Chamber of Commerce, and the City of Livermore have planned an aggressive campaign to get the word out to California and beyond to tout the exceptional shopping, dining, and entertainment experiences that await visitors. The organization also plans to expand its MySpace page in coming months to further promote its nightlife options.

Female Focus Forum: Connecting with Hard-core Shoppers

What better way can a Main Street program strengthen local business owners than by providing feedback from shoppers? In 2006, Livermore Downtown, Inc., hosted a Female Focus Forum that invited 50 women between the ages of 30 and 60 to talk about local businesses. The women were challenged to do all of their holiday shopping downtown and report back on their experiences. The focus group shared what they bought, which storefronts attracted them, their customer service experiences, and which product displays they preferred. Their input helped the Main Street program develop a training assistance plan for local businesses.

Revitalization Statistics – 1986-2008

  • Population: 79,000
  • District Size: 54
  • Year of Incorporation: 1986
  • Businesses: 328
  • Net New Jobs: 974
  • Net New Businesses: 194
  • Building Rehabs: 82
  • New Buildings: 12
  • Vacancy rate when program began: 26%
  • Vacancy rate today: 9%
  • Public Investment: $55,000,000
  • Private Investment: $112,000,000

The women also dreamed up a wish list of the types of businesses that needed to be recruited. Their input was submitted to the city council, economic development representatives, local commercial real estate agents, and property owners to show them which new businesses local consumers would support. Potential business owners also found this information helpful when deciding whether to locate in Livermore. The focus group continues to meet and additional business assistance trainings have resulted from their feedback.

Connecting with merchants is a high priority for Downtown Livermore, Inc. Regularly scheduled meetings bring together business owners, downtown representatives, and officials from city agencies so that the groups can work together to address issues directly.

A variety of incentives and assistance are available to business and property owners. Business owners can access façade improvement grants and tap the design professionals on the Design Committee for free assistance. The city offers a Business Marketing Incentive Program, through which business owners can apply for up to $2,500 in matching grants for marketing assistance. Downtown Livermore, Inc., receives $30,000 each year to provide marketing training to local business owners and "Excellence in Dining Training" to local restaurateurs. Throughout the year, the organization brings in retail consultants for business seminars and one-on-one trainings; and the staff frequently attends regional training, such as the California Tourism Bureau's Tourism Symposium so they can keep up with trends in the travel and tourism industry.

Sustaining Momentum

Regular board planning retreats ensure that the organization stays on track, and fund-raising efforts keep the money coming. One moneymaker, the Livermore Downtown Club Tag program, has signed up 483 members so far; each member makes a $25 donation and receives a monthly newsletter and downtown business deals. Downtown Livermore, Inc., so far has 90 Partners—members of the business community who support the organization because they get a downtown champion as well as free participation in events and listings on the website and in the business directory.

Another important fund raiser is with See's Candies. Every year before Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Easter, the Main Street office is turned into an impromptu See's Candies store. People come to buy candy and then patronize local businesses rather than shop at the mall, and, Snedecor points out, "It's also a great opportunity for residents and patrons to give us feedback on downtown and join our volunteer and downtown club programs." The organization's 2007-2008 Annual Report states that it earned a profit of more than $18,000 from this funding idea.

"By building relationships with our residents, business community, and governmental leaders, downtown efforts continue to receive unanimous support and commitment as we move to the future," says Snedecor. The effective partnership with the city and other stakeholders and dedicated revitalization leadership continue to validate the community's tagline that Livermore is a great place to live, shop, play, and dine!