Timing is right for Modesto to dramatically improve downtown

People look at items during the 2017 Mod Shop in Modesto.
People look at items during the 2017 Mod Shop in Modesto. aalfaro@modbee.com

There may never be a better time for downtown to reassert itself as the business and cultural heartbeat of Modesto. Here’s why.

  • Transformative projects.

ACE trains, with hundreds of daily riders, will be stopping downtown before we know it, increasing the buzz. A fancy new courthouse is on the way. Reinventing the old courthouse presents exciting opportunities. Traffic flow should be optimized, and more walking encouraged. We’ve patiently waited decades for new urban housing units, be they condos or apartments; city leaders must find a way for the tide of new downtown activity to raise the important housing segment.

  • Leadership.

More precisely, changing leadership in some groups that are key to downtown’s success.

The most visible is the Modesto Chamber of Commerce. Its board stumbled in recent weeks, passing up a chance to hire a dynamic, forward-facing president-CEO. They chose instead a nice, dependable person and longtime civic figure who seemed to reflect the old model set with former CEO Cecil Russell — semi-retired, chummy with the establishment, comfortable with how things have been done for decades.

No one is saying why, but the new hire was brusquely shown the door only two months into the job. Whether she decided that the Chamber is beyond repair, or the board owned up to its mistake and opted to cut losses quickly and launch another search, is not that important. What is, is the chamber’s golden opportunity for a do-over.

Whether the chamber can regain the relevance it once enjoyed is debatable, in an era when up-and-coming business owners know the ins and outs of social media and are happy to tackle their own promotions and marketing. Many have little use for the ribbon-cuttings and mixers that drove the old in-person networking model. The new reality helps explain how the once-mighty chamber, with 1,700 members 20 years ago, today has fewer than 800.

Far less visible, but with a narrower focus, is the Downtown Improvement District, an arm of city government representing business owners. Its director of 46 years, Nancy Young, will leave in a few weeks, presenting an almost literally once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for fresh leadership.

DID’s board now is talking with counterparts at the increasingly powerful Downtown Modesto Partnership — also known as DoMo — which represents property owners and has a different, larger funding source. They’re considering merging some aspects of both operations, including moving in together.

Modesto’s venerable main library may not be a mover-shaker entity, but it is an important downtown institution, helping underserved populations, including English learners and homeless. It’s getting a new leader too, with Librarian Diane McDonnell leaving soon, and has an excellent opportunity to remake itself.

And the Modesto Convention and Visitors Bureau is resurrecting with new CEO Todd Aaronson. The CVB hopes to open a visitors center on 12th Street between J and K within the month, and is already coordinating with DoMo, the chamber and others.

  • A vision.

Although Modesto is blessed to have so many groups invested in our downtown, they’ve been notoriously independent, working in their own spheres without much coordination. That needs to change.

Our best chance at finally pulling together may be a downtown master plan, now in the works. City Hall is paying Opticos Design, a Berkeley firm, $210,000 for what will be a year’s worth of gathering dreams and data and turning them into a cohesive and evolving vision for what downtown can become. That means taking hard looks at traffic, parking, pedestrian flow, new housing as well as overnight lodging, and so much more.

We’ve already got the basic building blocks for success, like top-notch restaurants. Entertainment options include the famed Gallo Center for the Arts, Brenden Theatres, the State Theatre, and a serviceable if aging convention center. We’ve got Art Walks, Mod Shop, First Fridays, Samplers, a farmers market, various street fairs and seasonal parades.

With all that going for us — combined with firepower from new leadership of key entities, and a master plan coming soon — it feels like we’re on the brink of something big. Maybe even something that will keep our children here, rather than moving away for distant opportunities.

All groups and agencies mentioned above — plus others with important stakes in downtown, like Opportunity Stanislaus, Downtown Streets Team and the Stanislaus Community Foundation — must set politics and self-interest aside, and help Opticos and City Hall come up with a winning formula for a vigorous and vibrant downtown.