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Mark Oliver: Ripping the heart out of Solvang
Guest Commentary

Mark Oliver: Ripping the heart out of Solvang

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The city of Solvang is looking at “opportunities to enhance revenue sources by increasing experiential tourism, incentivizing longer tourist stays, and increasing spending patterns.”

In order to facilitate this objective, the city is proposing to raze the village’s beloved Veterans Memorial Hall, the county superior courtroom, the sheriff’s substation, the public library, the 3rd District supervisor’s offices and the senior center, all built in 1936, plus adjoining parcels, and replace them with a privately developed shopping mall.

Those of us opposed to this development (and there are many) do not doubt the good intentions of the mayor and some of the council members to make ends meet, but this proposed development is a prime example of poor judgment and planning.

In 1989 the Paseo Nuevo shopping mall opened on lower State Street in Santa Barbara. The developer’s promise was that it would attract well-heeled visitors, encourage longer tourist stays in Santa Barbara and increase tax revenues for the city.

The economic devastation of local stores from the Arlington Theater south to Carrillo Street was immediate. My wife’s children’s clothing store, the Children’s Boutique, was located next to the museum of art. The revenue drain upon the opening of the mall led to an immediate loss of 30% of sales, an immediate loss that only worsened over time.

Many, many other stores suffered the same fate. After a few short years, my wife was forced to close her store. Empty storefronts plagued this area of the city for years. I know, because my business was located on the corner of State and Victoria and I witnessed the closings.

Or take the example of a mistake closer to home, the development of the Outlet Center. Once again, promising increased tax revenues for the city, the developer filled the outlets with national brands. However, visitors did not flock to the outlet center because they did not come to Solvang to go to an outlet center, they came to visit a charming Danish village.

My wife now runs the family store in Solvang with her sister. Founded by her mother, Doris Mitchell, a Dane who moved to Solvang in 1935 as a child, Solvang Children’s Shop has been in business 50 years this year, begun in 1970. Her family has known most of the owners of long-time locally owned businesses for decades. Like the owners of those businesses, the family is appalled by the proposed development.

The city council members should ask themselves three questions:

- Who knows the importance of paying customers better than those who run the retail stores?

- Who knows the visitors better than the hoteliers that manage the accommodations?

- Who knows the village of Solvang better than the citizens who live here?

These voices are voices that must be listened to, these voices whose messages are the most valid and most important to preserving and promoting the heritage, culture and, not the least, the profitability of Solvang. And these voices do not want the mall.

So Solvang’s current general fund revenues pie chart doesn't look like other cities? So what? How many cities in California are like Solvang? Solvang is not like other cities and the citizenry likes it that way.

The city is also preparing to grant an exclusive right to developer Ed St. George to build on this publicly owned property. Regarding this “exclusive agreement,” no law-abiding city council should ever enter into such a contract. 

The city council should not rip the heart out of Solvang. It should promote what we have; it should not drive the merchants of Solvang out of business and the visitors away. A shopping mall where the Veterans Memorial Hall and surrounding area is located is not the solution to the revenue problem, nor is re-designing the park or any other of the proposed changes. The city council does not have a mandate to make any of these changes.

If the city council cannot do the right thing and pull the plug on this proposal, then put it to a vote of the citizens of Solvang. We guarantee the development will be overwhelmingly condemned.

Mark Oliver is the former president of the Santa Ynez Valley Alliance.

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