Del Prado businesses face challenges due to Town Center/Lantern District construction
By Andrea Swayne
Open for business.
That is the message businesses along Del Prado Avenue would like to get across as Town Center/Lantern District revitalization projects continue.
Infrastructure improvements being made by the city of Dana Point and the South Coast Water District on Del Prado, along with the recent change to two-way traffic along Pacific Coast Highway, have brought hard times to Del Prado businesses, and they, with assistance from the city and the Chamber of Commerce, are exploring ways to keep themselves afloat.
The construction is part of the city’s effort to revamp the downtown corridor to create a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, shopping, dining and residential district in the heart of Dana Point. The estimated $19 million Town Center Plan—which established a framework for the project—was approved by City Council in 2006 and the California Coastal Commission in 2008. In 2013, council approved spending $9.2 million for the project’s first phase along PCH—water and sewer line replacement by the SCWD, along with street, sidewalk and a conversion to two-way traffic by the city.
With work on PCH now complete, the city and water district have turned their attention to Del Prado. In September, City Council approved spending $7.7 million for streetscape improvements and the conversion of Del Prado to two-way traffic. According to Brad Fowler, director of Public Works and Engineering, the city anticipates completing Del Prado work in September of 2015.
Work along Del Prado is being completed in phases, the first being the stretch between Blue Lantern and Ruby Lantern, which is expected to be done by November 21. The water district will continue infrastructure work southward to Golden Lantern, followed by the city’s streetscape improvements.
Business owners report a two-fold problem during construction is severely hampering their business—construction zones on the street , compounded by the newly-created southbound PCH lanes, which they say, is resulting in motorists bypassing Del Prado altogether.
Debbie Riley, owner of Timeless Teak, said in her 16 years on Del Prado, business has never been as difficult as it is now.
“Even though most of the work is done at my end of the street and I’m past that obstacle, I see only about one in every 20 cars—all of which used to have to come down Del Prado—choosing Del Prado over PCH,” Riley said. “Locals know to drop down this street, but we can’t survive on local business only. We need new customers and out of town people to discover us.”
The TCP calls for construction of a decorative entry archway over the northern end of Del Prado, a part of the project Riley said, she and other businesses are in desperate need of.
Fowler said the “Lantern District” archway is an important part of the plan’s way-finding signage designed to highlight all Lantern District businesses, and is one of the city’s next steps toward designating the area as a destination.
“The archway will herald the entry into the pedestrian friendly, walkable district downtown,” he said. “It will alert travelers specifically to shopping and dining on Del Prado. We have banner poles going up on PCH as well, so that we will essentially have two entry features, one for PCH and for Del Prado, to attract southbound travelers.”
The archway is the first item of construction slated to begin after the holidays. The city expects to start its construction in the first week of January and should be completed in March.
“There is some special focus now on the Del Prado side but ultimately the entry features at both ends are designed for the couplet in order to highlight both Del Prado and PCH businesses,” Fowler said.
A recommendation to consider changing the Town Center sign at the southern entry to the district to match with the Lantern District branding at the north end is expected to be considered by City Council as the project progresses, he added.
As part of the overall efforts to support Del Prado merchants, the city, the Dana Point Chamber of Commerce and a group of business owners have joined to address the problems struggling businesses are facing.
“The city is understanding of their situation and we are doing everything we can to support them,” Christy Teague, economic development manager of the city’s Community Development Department, said. “With this phase being a longer process than PCH and PCH now being an alternative route, it will take some extra work and reeducation to get people to drive down Del Prado.”
Ursula Luna-Reynosa, community development director, said the city is working on a number of strategies to ease businesses’ struggles.
In order to help merchants attract customers, the city will not be actively enforcing the current sign ordinance as it relates to temporary signage along Del Prado. And, based on the concerns business owners have raised about their dwindling volume of customers, the city is also working on a marketing program, dubbed “Passport to Del Prado,” which will be unveiled as soon as the logistics are worked out, she said.
The specifics of the program are still in the works, but Luna-Reynosa said the basis of it will be an incentive program where prizes will be awarded to customers for every $10 spent at Del Prado businesses.
“We will be reaching out to their entire trade area, including neighboring cities, and incentivizing customers to visit during this time when the perception may be that it may not be the most convenient time to shop on Del Prado,” Luna-Reynosa said. “We are hoping that once shoppers and diners visit, their perception will change; that we can help people get past that psychological barrier construction has on the perceived customer experience.”
In the meantime, she said, the city will deploy colorful, temporary, attention-grabbing signage, balloons, etc. by the end of the week to create interest among southbound motorists attracting them down Del Prado.
A meeting with merchants is set for Monday to introduce these and the city’s other efforts, including a “Passport to Del Prado” website in development now, social media marketing and posters showing a rendering of the vision for streetscape improvements to help merchants communicate to their customers the eventual result of the temporary inconvenience.
The city is also sponsoring a series of “Business Spotlight” articles to appear weekly in the Dana Point Times, highlighting area businesses.
The Dana Point Chamber of Commerce will also be instrumental in supporting the area’s businesses, chamber members or not, said Executive Director Heather Johnston.
The chamber’s efforts include “Del Prado Tuesdays” when all of the organization’s media messaging will focus on shopping and dining in the area and graphics designed to provide a consistent marketing message attracting customers to Del Prado via social media.
“We’re focused on having good communication with the businesses. Even if they’re not chamber members, we’re still here to support them,” Johnston said. “We are committed to utilizing our entire reach toward promoting shopping and dining on Del Prado.”
A large part of the chamber’s efforts include encouraging all Dana Point businesses to support each other and urging area nonprofits who have benefitted over the years from the generosity of local business to return the favor, she said.
“We’ll be adjusting our tactics as construction moves forward and offering exciting new customer incentives,” Johnston added.
Cindy Monroe, owner of Luxe Restaurant and Martini Bar, hosted a meeting of area merchants on Oct. 30, to discuss their challenges and brainstorm ideas. Fowler gave an update of the project from the city and Johnston offered the chamber’s help.
“I had been hearing from other business owners that they are struggling, and my business is definitely down, so I invited them, the city and the chamber to meet at my restaurant to collaborate on how we can all work together to support each other,” Monroe said. “I’ve seen a 34- to 40-percent decrease in business, similar to what many neighboring business are reporting, so I felt the need was urgent.”
As a proponent of Town Center/Lantern District development, Monroe said she expected growing pains, but “not to this magnitude.”
“I really hope Dana Point residents realize the severity of the situation and help to support us,” Monroe said. “Harbor merchants will be facing a similar situation soon, followed by Doheny Village. I am optimistic that we can support each other and get through this together.”