City manager shifts economic focus away from downtown

Economic development to focus growth in other areas of city
By: 
DARRELL JACKSON, Glendale Star Staff Writer

Kevin Phelps

“We will continue to propose funding for the events, but we will not be increasing our funding level,” City Manager Kevin Phelps said. “We will not make any changes and we expect the 2019-20 events season to look the same as the 2018-19 season.”

After two years of work trying to ensure the success of the downtown area with a major plan for changing the economic vision for the area, which included the possible elimination of the city’s major holiday events, City Manager Kevin Phelps announced his recommendation for the future of those events.
“We will continue to propose funding for the events, but we will not be increasing our funding level,” Phelps said. “We will not make any changes and we expect the 2019-20 events season to look the same as the 2018-19 season.”

City manager recommendations
In a letter sent to Glendale City Council Nov. 2, Phelps pointed out that part of his job has been working on improving the success of business in the downtown area and trying to bring visitors downtown.
“While we have made significant progress on many of the council’s initial priorities, there is still much to be done,” Phelps said in the memo. “In June, I informed council that I was preparing to roll out a new economic development strategy focused on energizing our struggling downtown.”
Over the past two years, staff had been looking into numerous ideas to help enliven the downtown area and attract customers to local businesses.
The major idea presented in early March was to rebuild and refurbish the E. Lowell Rogers Amphitheater in Murphy Park and hold events year-round to drive people to the area.
The downtown area under discussion is bordered by Myrtle Avenue on the north, Grand Avenue on the south, 59th Avenue on the west and 55th Avenue on the east.
“The city budgets approximately $1 million per year to support the downtown area,” Phelps said. “This includes the special events, such as Glendale Glitters, Glitter and Glow and the Chocolate Affaire, as well as the downtown manager and increased security and street sweeping.”
In return for the money spent downtown, the city collects an estimated annual gross sales tax of $403,000, which is 0.003 percent of the total collected by the city. Nearly $60,000 of the $403,000 comes during special events.
In comparison, the city invested $10,000 in the Westgate Entertainment District, which was for the fireworks during the Fourth of July event, and spent nothing at Arrowhead Towne Center.
In return, Arrowhead Towne Center contributed 13 percent of the city’s total annual sales tax and Westgate contributed 10 percent.
Phelps said the ultimate goal of driving people and potential business to the downtown area is a huge priority for council and city staff, but the city also wants merchants to work toward assisting with those plans.

Possible changes to downtown plan
During an interview earlier this year, Phelps pointed to changing the entire focus of special events from four to five mega events to 100 to 150 events year round.
“Staff and I had been looking at this and wanted to roll out a new strategic development that, under ideal perfect conditions, would still be a challenge,” Phelps said. “We are not the only city in the country having challenges with their downtown area; even shopping centers are stressing because brick and mortar businesses are changing around the country.”
He said his original idea was to focus the downtown Glendale area on “Experiential Retail,” which refers to a retail or restaurant location in which customers can have an experience with shopping, including upscale restaurants and bars.
He said part of the plan staff researched was the possibility of relocating the Velma Teague Library from its current location in Murphy Park to the old Bead Museum down the street.
“Staff had researched moving the Velma Teague Library to the old Bead Museum and making it a larger and more up-to-date library,” Phelps said. “Then we would try and attract one or more restaurant or bar type retailers to open right in Murphy Park.”
One of the suggestions Phelps had was to get restaurants, such as Postino’s or Pizzeria Bianco, to bring people to the downtown area.
“If you had an amphitheater that had 100 to 150 events a year, you could get the type of bar or restaurant to come to the downtown area to bring people in,” Phelps said. “I mean, my wife and I will drive to eat at restaurants like that. Could you imagine if there was one right in the heart of downtown?”
But he added that the resistance to the idea of moving the library and ending events like Glendale Glitters and Glitter and Glow has forced him to refocus city staff to other areas.
“Basically, Glendale Glitters, Glitter and Glow and Chocolate Affaire will remain the same and I have heard loud and clear from the merchants that they want those,” Phelps said. “There is no way we can have those and do any kind of significant strategy change because I would not be able to attract a significant destination retail or restaurant based on only 14 days of the year having tons of people come to downtown.”

Remodel of E. Lowell Rogers Amphitheater frozen
In March, Phelps presented drawings and artist renderings of a remodeled amphitheater with 1,200 to 1,400 permanent seating and a grass seating area. Among the added amenities would be shade cover, specialty areas that would be Americans with Disabilities Act areas and other permanent fixtures that would improve the performance area.
Numerous merchants, during a presentation in March about the proposed remodel, said they were nervous the city was planning to cancel the city-sponsored events, which Phelps now said will continue, with no added budget increase.
“Cost continue to go up, so it will be a challenge to continue things the way things are and some changes may be necessitated,” Public Facilities, Recreation and Special Events Director Jim Burke said. “Seven days in four weekends this year and two days for Chocolate Affaire, we will check into what we can continue in 2019.”
Phelps pointed to city staff working diligently on different strategies to bring business into the downtown area by focusing on the amphitheater as a way for performers and musicians to advertise events in downtown, with some paid ticketed events of bands that could drive hundreds of people to the area year-round.
But because of the pushback from downtown merchants, that remodel is now on hold, as Phelps is directing staff to focus on other areas within the city.
“Staff has been meeting with building owners and merchants for months and had a workshop with the changes to special events and we saw immense pushback from merchants on those changes,” Phelps said. “But the loudest and most vocal merchants have basically said that everything in downtown is fine and they want to keep the events just how they are. I am going to ask our team to quit trying to force something that does not seem to be needed at this point, as the vocal downtown people have said things downtown are fine.”
Phelps is responding to those sentiments by saying, “Because of the pushback that I have gotten from the vocal merchants, I have asked economic development to focus on areas outside of downtown that, at the end of day, we have had disproportional amount of energy at both the city manager and economic development level in part of town that counts for one-fourth of one percent to our general fund.”
The city has spent more than $1 million per year attempting to revitalize the downtown area, but that funding has shown little return to the city coffers, and disagreements with city staff.
Phelps said, “Meanwhile, when economic development goes out to Westgate or Arrowhead Mall, they are welcomed with arms wide open and they are appreciated for the work they do. They also have added value in retaining, expanding or recruiting new businesses to the city. We have a finite amount of time and it makes sense that we make seconds count and if we are not needed downtown and they believe we have a program there that is working, then we are going to start focusing in other areas.”

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