Inland-area downtowns poised for revival as state lifts coronavirus restrictions

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, “Sorry, We’re Closed” signs adorned the front entrances of countless storefronts in downtown Pomona. Foot traffic was nonexistent, chairs were stacked at restaurants and forthcoming closures weighed on business owners.

“We feared for the worst and prepared for it, too,” said Carmen Trejo, manager at El Merendero, a 36-year-old Mexican restaurant on Garey Avenue near Second Street. “It changed so fast and I thought, ‘Will downtown look the same?’ I didn’t know.”

That question had been top-of-mind for business owners across the Inland Empire in recent weeks as the state prepared to lift pandemic-related restrictions meant to slow the spread of the virus. A driving force for sales tax revenue in local municipalities, downtown districts felt the early brunt of the economic effects of those restrictions and businesses of all kinds were forced to pivot, adapting to meet the needs of customers in a most unusual year.

What emerged after the shutdowns is an updated downtown for many cities, forever altered by the pandemic, with changes, some temporary and some here to stay, such as stringent hygiene protocols, increased outdoor dining options and increased use of third-party delivery services

“People are coming back slowly,” Trejo said June 15, the day the state lifted most of the restrictions that had been in place for more than a year to limit public gatherings. “There’s still some worries but people want to be out.”

  • Downtown Redlands has a steady crowd on Saturday night, June 12, 2021. Commerical hubs in towns across Southern California are poised for revival following the state lifting its pandemic restrictions on businesses. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Visitors walk on the new concrete sidewalks that are designed to look like wood along Old Town Front Street in Old Town Temecula on Thursday, May 21, 2020. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • People walk by storefronts in the Pomona Arts Colony in downtown Pomona, CA on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Luke’s roof top restaurant and bar is open for dine in and take out orders in Old Town on Front Street in Temecula on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Misters cool couples strolling along State Street in Redlands, CA on Saturday, June 12, 2021. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Every window seat at Darby’s American Cantina was taken in downtown Redlands, CA on Saturday, June 12, 2021. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • People walk by storefronts in the Pomona Arts Colony in downtown Pomona on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • People walk, masked, in Old Town Temecula in this file photo. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)



Community ‘color’ returning

Downtown Pomona has resurfaced as a cultural hub with art, food and community at its core, said Marco Argote, creative director for the Downtown Pomona Owners Association. While there was uncertainty early on in the pandemic, the commercial hub survived with just two businesses closing over the past year, Argote said.

The economic downturn didn’t hit as hard as some expected. Sales tax in the downtown area totaled $863,634 in 2020, a 19% decrease over 2019 figures, according to data provided by the city of Pomona.

“We managed to pull through, including many of our mom-and-pop shops,” Argote said. “People never really left the area, they came back, honestly.”

Argote said the city’s Active Pomona program, which allows for pop-up businesses and events on city streets, brought people out who had endured weeks of being inside due to state-mandated lockdowns. By late August 2020, families came out in droves, to eat, shop and enjoy free art, he said.

For decades, local artists and their galleries have been part of the cultural identity of downtown, said Jovani Esparza, owner of The Alley Gallery, located on South Main Street. But in recent years, many galleries closed and the area lost much of its “color,” he said.

That fueled his idea behind “31 Flavors”, a collaboration of 31 artists who create live art in the downtown area. Esparza and Councilman Victor Preciado, whose district includes the Pomona Arts Colony, worked together to bring the now monthly event to life.

“Art brings people together and nowadays people want something bright, colorful, and interactive,” Esparza said. “People have been living here for 20 years and they have never been to downtown Pomona until their daughter was live painting here on Saturday, that’s just incredible.”

The vibrant art scene has caught the attention of other cities looking to revitalize their own downtowns, said Esparza, adding he has been contacted by artists and local officials from Nevada and Oklahoma eager to start their own art walks.

Seasonal events, pop-up markets and festivals will play a big role in bringing people back to downtown areas, Marcia Godwin, professor of public administration at the University of La Verne, said by phone.

“What we’ve lost are festivals and events that people go to during certain holidays, that’s the bread and butter of downtown areas,” Godwin said. “We’re going to see an emphasis on being outdoors: art, taste of downtown events, and car shows. People are naturally going to return.”

Dirtbag Coffee on State Street is one of the new businesses in downtown Redlands that has been successful in the changing pandemic times on Saturday, June 12, 2021. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

A new downtown

Some 35 miles to the east in Redlands, the makeup of the city’s downtown area saw some noticeable changes during the pandemic with a slew of new businesses.

At the base of the city’s tallest building on State Street, Augie’s Coffee folded last summer, citing pandemic woes as workers tried to unionize. By December that space was filled with Cupcake and Espresso Bar.

A few doors west and a few months later, Angie Ohama and her husband Aaron expanded their Dirtbag brand after its neighbor, Strandz Salon, closed. The clothing store had closed for a few months at the beginning of the pandemic, but since reopening traffic has been relatively steady, Angie Ohama said.

“We were able to get the shop next to us because they had closed due to the pandemic, and then we decided to open a coffee shop because Augie’s closed down the street and we still needed a coffee shop,” she said.

Frozen yogurt purveyor Pinkberry opened up in a second former Augie’s location in a nearby Redlands shopping center, and J.Riley Distillery and Escape Craft Brewery have also since moved into their new digs featuring the adaptive reuse of older buildings, including a historic brick warehouse.

“The downtown area has seen quite a lot of exciting activity, including businesses that have recently opened in the area of the Packing House District and nearby areas,” city spokesman Carl Baker said in an email. Redlands Public Market, which was delayed due to the pandemic, is also set to be under construction by year’s end, he said.

As some businesses shut down during the past year, new ones have quickly filled their spaces, said ULV assistant professor of economics Ryan Lee. As people stayed home — some for months at a time — they increased their savings, which triggered some to finally pursue opening their own small business, Lee said.

“What we’ve is seen is that people like starting businesses, whether it’s a restaurant or a pop-up,” Lee said. “Rent for commercial space has lowered, which gives people the opportunity to take that risk they couldn’t before.”

In Redlands, beyond the first months of the pandemic, downtown never really slowed as businesses got creative with outdoor and delivery options, Ohama said.

“I think (downtown) is doing really well, just the community support is definitely a big factor in that,” she said. “If we didn’t have that I’m sure we would be a ghost town down here.”

Customers enjoy dinner and drinks while setting outside under the lights, heaters and stars at 1909 restaurant along Old Town Front Street in Temecula on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Return to Old Town 

While some downtowns emerged largely unscathed, Old Town Temecula, the city’s longtime tourist hotspot, was mostly deserted at the peak of the pandemic, resulting in an economic hit.

“It was quiet. Nobody knew what was happening — the merchants handled it as best as they could, but it was pretty dead for those first few months,” said Julie Ngo, president of the Old Town Temecula Association, which acts as a liaison between business owners and the city.

Ngo said the association, with help from the city, kept business owners in the loop of the state’s ever-changing COVID-19 regulations.

“We tried to make the downtown area as nice as possible, so that restaurants didn’t feel like they were dead in the water,” she said.

Last summer, as Old Town remained quiet, some local businesses took advantage of the slower foot traffic. Indoor dining was still prohibited, so some popular restaurants, such as Baily’s Old Town and Mad Madeline’s Grill, upgraded outdoor seating areas and offered more take-out and pick-up spots for customers. In the earlier pandemic months, the city finished a half-million-dollar renovation to Old Town’s iconic wooden sidewalks, replacing them with concrete.

Christine Damko, Temecula’s economic development manager, said the city’s revenue losses totaled $5 million as the pandemic continued. But coronavirus restrictions loosened, vaccinations increased and now with the state’s reopening, the economy is “thriving,” Damko said, especially in Old Town Temecula.

The area saw a handful of restaurants open their doors during the pandemic, such as Bottega Italia and Topspin Pizza and Pong.

“The patio was already huge, so it was perfect for opening in the pandemic. Here in Old Town, a lot of people pass by … people like the view of the street, so you have to have a patio,” said Charity Prestifilippo, co-owner of Bottega Italia, an Italian restaurant that opened in fall 2020. She said things were slow at first, but business has been good overall — they’re even considering extending hours to greet the late-night crowd.

“People love the fun, social, upbeat energy that’s here in Old Town,” Prestifilippo said.

Over the past few months, business owners and the city say the neighborhood has morphed back into its bustling hub of shopping, dining and nightlife. In March, the Riverside County sheriff bolstered its metro police presence in Old Town as more residents and out-of-towners came to enjoy the neighborhood.

That out-of-town traffic will be key to the success of downtown areas as the state reopens, according to Godwin.

“People come to California to enjoy the sunshine, the atmosphere and even our downtown areas,” Godwin said. “I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”