Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - January 15, 2010

Outlook 2010

What's ahead in the new year for Pleasanton

by Jeb Bing

While many economists believe the recession ended in the middle of 2009, local analysts are still waiting for better results before agreeing that Pleasanton and the Tri-Valley are out of the woods. Office vacancies in Hacienda Business Park continue to hover at 25 percent, a record high, although Kaiser is now moving employees into two buildings it has acquired from Oracle and Roche is expanding. James Paxson, head of the Hacienda Business Park Owners Association, called it "a very cloudy crystal ball" that we're looking at right now.

Pamela Ott, the city's economic development manager, is more optimistic, saying the economic outlook is better than a year ago. She is working with the Pleasanton Downtown Association and retail centers throughout the city on a marketing plan that will promote Pleasanton throughout the Bay Area.

"We're doing everything we can to find new businesses and encourage them to come to Pleasanton," Ott said. "Everyone has managed to hang on through the worst of times. It's looking a bit brighter."

"I think all of us have been anxiously waiting for 2010, and thankfully, here it is," said Judy Wheeler, owner of the Towne Center Books on Main Street. "During the last quarter of the year, customers were much more upbeat about shopping and spending in general. What was especially heartening were the comments so many made about the need to shop and dine in Pleasanton."

"I think the message we've been pushing is finally registering," said Melanie Sadek, owner of Murphy's Paw, also on Main Street. "We've been pointing out to customers that we have an important asset in our historic downtown, but merchants need the public's support if we're going to survive and grow."

New stores and restaurants are expected to fill vacancies downtown, including a bid to rent the large former Domus building. A new owner will re-open in the former Panda Restaurant next month with both Redcoats and The Farmer Restaurant expected to expand night time entertainment venues.

Sadek points out that economists are pinning their forecasts for better times on the growth and better profits of small businesses across the country.

"When it comes to small businesses that can use that kind of support, we're right here in downtown Pleasanton," Sadek said. "Come and see us."

Generally, restaurants enjoyed full houses during much of the holidays, with managers crediting the popularity of the city's outdoor ice rink for increased business, helped, too, by the free horse-drawn carriage rides that attracted hundreds to downtown stores.

Also popular were gift cards available in any denomination that are good at more than 60 downtown stores and restaurants. Wheeler said those who received them as gifts are dining and shopping downtown, some for the first time, with the value of the hundreds of gifts cards sold averaging $100. The cards, which are sold at Wheeler's store and by the PDA, will be offered throughout 2010.

Because of the recession and concern over stable tax revenue, the city of Pleasanton postponed consideration of new capital projects, although it has continued funding the construction of the Firehouse Arts Center on Railroad Avenue. The facility will open later this spring and it's expected to attract more restaurants, late-night refreshment stops and other retailers to its location on Railroad Avenue. Retailers are also pressing for improvements to Division Street to turn it into a vibrant walkway connecting the theater and Main Street.

Real estate, in the doldrums for the last three years, also could see a better year. Rick Turley of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, said the local market is benefiting from bargain hunting at the entry-level segment with prices, low interest rates and tax credits so first-time buyers can afford to buy in Pleasanton. Turley cites statistical evidence that residential real estate in the Tri-Valley may have hit bottom with re-sale prices starting to rise and buyer interest accelerating.

Commercial real estate transactions are also expected to improve during the year with Brad Hirst of Equity Enterprises reporting that his firm had two offers on commercial condos in Livermore just this week.

"Globally, we've heard and read a lot of positive things in the market, but it's not been that kind of a turnaround here, at least not yet," Hirst said. "I do see less doom and gloom moving into the new year, albeit with more ebbs and flows. The commercial market is definitely getting better, but I don't hear anyone saying that business is robust."

Steve Clarkson of Heritage Investment said he is even pleasantly surprised by the near-glowing optimism in both the stock market and the investment community.

"The pundits in the trade press seem to be fairly positive, writing that they see the market getting back to where it was in a year or two," Clarkson said. A board member of the Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Clarkson said he's perplexed by the enthusiasm on Wall Street and what he calls its "mini-bull-run" at a time when federal spending and a falling dollar should raise a yellow flag.

"It's clearly much better than a year ago and 2010 looks good for investors," Clarkson said.

Paxson shares Clarkson's caution. He's especially concerned about California's $20-billion debt burden that is now affecting regional and local governments and school districts.

"Even though some sectors in the East Bay's private sector are doing well in the new year, government agencies also represent a huge employment sector where we may see considerable downsizing."

Paxson also cited the closing scheduled this spring of the NUMMI plant in Fremont, where as many as 4,400 workers could lose their jobs. A number of them live in Pleasanton and some Pleasanton commercial businesses have business dealings with NUMMI.

The new year also presents a challenge to Dave Rice, president of the Tri-Valley Community Foundation. Even with some improvement in the economy, Rice said the ripple effect from the recession is still causing economic and health problems for hundreds in the Tri-Valley who have lost their jobs and not been able to find new ones.

"Even if they see their business improving, employers are still reluctant to add more to their payroll because of the ongoing uncertainties," Rice said. "That's putting enormous pressure on charitable organizations who find demand for their services growing with fewer contributions coming in to pay those costs."

Sadek, owner of the specialty shop Murphy's Paw, heads a group of retailers who are keeping their stores open more nights during the weeks and offering discounts for restaurant diners and shoppers.

"We have weathered the storm of 2009 and are now positioned to build our businesses in 2010," she said. "Being a pet store owner, I just hope the people of Pleasanton will help by shopping downtown -- and perhaps owning more dogs."

Mayor Jennifer Hosterman will present the State of the City address Feb. 16, where she is expected to speak about city finances, the Firehouse Arts Center, State Route 84, Staples Ranch and Stoneridge Drive, transit-oriented development in the Hacienda Business Park and BART to Livermore.

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