Solvang is having something of an identity crisis.
It is generally agreed that businesses not fitting the tourist-related commercial model are encouraged to locate somewhere other than downtown. On the other hand, there are several good reasons why such a policy makes little or no sense.
The contradiction has not escaped the notice of the city’s Planning Commission, whose members last week directed staff to devise a streamlined permitting process that would allow businesses that don’t fit the current tourist-related definition the ability to seek approval without going through the expensive — and often uncertain — process of seeking a conditional-use permit.
The idea is that planning staff could review business applications and recommend approval, if the proposed businesses fit the general, unspecified criteria in the existing rules.
That might save business owners the hassle and expense of going through the conditional-use permitting exercise. Too often owners go through that process, spending thousands of dollars, all the time knowing there is a strong possibility their application will be denied.
It seems it has finally dawned on Solvang’s policy makers that reserving downtown stores and shops for tourist-only businesses is, in a very real way, selling both business operators and local residents short.
Just because Solvang is a tourist mecca doesn't mean non-tourist-related businesses should be barred from operating in the downtown core. In fact, there’s a good chance many tourists might appreciate getting a break from the all-tourism commercialism.
There is another very good reason for the city to change the way it views non-tourism businesses downtown — there already are some of those in operation in the core area. Some were grandfathered in, while others were approved through a case-by-case process. Either way, barring non-tourism businesses where some already exist somehow seems wrong.
The tourism-related commercial zone currently allows indoor amusement enterprises, retail stores, indoor and outdoor restaurants, bars and cocktail lounges, hotels, conference centers, bed-and-breakfast inns, theaters, golf courses, nurseries and parking lots, among others.
At the same time there exist businesses that are more oriented toward local residents, such as laundry and dry cleaners, barbers, beauty parlors, shoe repair and tailor shops, photo studios, health clubs, spas and radio, TV and small appliance repair shops. And one can’t forget the financial institutions, business, professional and trade schools, and professional, administrative and business offices being among the allowed uses that serve mostly local residents.
In other words, like most any other successful downtown area in America, Solvang is, and should continue to be a mixture of commercial activity.
Tracy Beard, executive director of the Solvang Chamber of Commerce, makes the point that the downtown business scene has changed in the three decades since the tourist-related commercial ordinance was developed. Her belief is that Solvang officials need to look at what and who is being served, or doing business another way.
We believe that is what the Planning Commission directive has as an ultimate goal, to define — or redefine — what Solvang wants to be in the future.
Let’s face it, we live in a very popular spot. Every visitor we’ve ever met says approximately the same thing — “Gee, this would be a really terrific place to live.”
Which is why the Valley is growing as fast as it is. The local wine industry has a lot to do with that, too.
In the end, what we all want is a good, safe, smallish place to live, with enough amenities so we don’t have to drive over the hill or up to Santa Maria.