continued To combat the unsafe image, the management district spends $80,000 on a private security patrol. Another hurdle for downtown redevelopment was the fact there was no reason to go there, outside of the regional center. "It was a terrible vicious circle," says Saverson. "There weren't stores to attract shoppers, and there weren't shoppers to patronize possible new stores."
A dearth of restaurants was, and still is, another problem. Aside from an old-fashioned diner on Main and Avocado, there were no restaurants downtown at the inception of the management district. "There's no place to go," says Lisa Saneda, arts education coordinator for the East County Performing Arts Center. "Most theatergoers like to either do something before or go someplace after, and it's been a problem here in El Cajon. Basically there's just a Mexican restaurant, Por Favor, so if you don't like Mexican, you're out of luck."
The Performing Arts Center fields calls before every performance from theater patrons looking for somewhere to eat. "We tell them Por Favor," Saneda says, "and then the next closest thing is Anthony's or the Brigantine [in La Mesa]."
That fact that people attending the theater in El Cajon are spending their dining money elsewhere galls Carpenter, and she's made attracting restaurants to downtown a top priority. But so far only Por Favor owner Gabriel Marrujo has taken up the challenge. "Well, when we first went in there in 1998," Marrujo says, "it was a gamble. There was still a transient problem. There was a homeless ministry right next door plus F Street Books. There was a homeless problem in the alley and in the front and people sleeping and urinating all around. Our customers from our other stores were asking me, 'What are you doing going over there?' But we were assured that the homeless ministry was going to be relocated, and we could see the changes that were going to come along on the street. So we decided to take a gamble."
Marrujo's other three Por Favors are in Fletcher Hills, Lemon Grove, and La Mesa. The latter two, like the El Cajon location, are also in traditional downtown areas. "We like to be in older, downtown sort of locations. We saw La Mesa doing the same thing in the early '80s when we opened there. And at the time, La Mesa had some transient problems, but it worked out for us there, and it's a great location now."
His El Cajon Por Favor is doing well enough that Marrujo plans to open a full-service American cuisine restaurant two doors down.
"Por Favor is always packed," says Fenton, whose music shop sits between the Mexican restaurant and the planned American restaurant. "During the car show, you have to get in line to get in there, especially if you want to sit on the sidewalk patio. Anybody who had a restaurant business, if they had half a brain, should be looking for buildings down here. You can get cheap property, which is going to cut your overhead down, and there's tons of labor around here. When Por Favor advertised that they needed waitresses, there were so many people coming down looking for jobs."
Retail space in downtown El Cajon currently runs between 70 cents and $1.25 per square foot, as opposed to around $4.50 a square foot in Hillcrest's Uptown District.
After restaurants, Carpenter would like to see some mixed-use residential/retail development in her district. Ground has been broken on one such development on the corner of Main and Magnolia. After that, Carpenter envisions a strip of "unusual retail" and live-entertainment venues. "Our overriding mission," she says, "is to create a pedestrian village, an arts and entertainment shopping district."
Asked if she brought an anticorporate attitude to El Cajon from her former job in Ocean Beach, Carpenter laughs. "We're creating a new identity here because El Cajon lost its identity over the last 20 years. So we don't really have the sense of preservation, for lack of a better word, that OB has. OB is trying to maintain a lifestyle and a philosophy that has been there a long time. Still, we believe strongly that we don't want El Cajon to be homogenized. We don't want to be a Rancho San Diego. Our dream would be to take the best of both worlds, to be able to support entrepreneurs, mom-and-pops, unique shopping environments, and have the more national tenants that bring credibility and a solid financial base."
At present, downtown El Cajon has no national tenants. Attracting one, Carpenter believes, would help the district over the next hurdle in its redevelopment path, what she calls the "peculiar demographics" of El Cajon. "Right around this downtown area," she explains, "is a half mile of low-income apartment dwellers and subsidized housing. Sometimes those corporations can't look past that. They don't see the billions of dollars of income in the hills surrounding us that are only a mile away, two miles away, three miles away in Granite Hills, Mount Helix, and Fletcher Hills. We are surrounded by wealth."
The challenge is explaining that to a corporation. "A Starbucks would do it," Carpenter says. "We need the validation that a Starbucks would bring. We need to be on the map."