After 17 years building a profitable, well-known destination bridal shop on Main Street in Pleasanton, Jaime Zile is worried about her store remaining solvent and being able to grow.
Like almost all small businesses, Zile's J'aime Bridal took a hit financially during the 2020 shelter-in-place and is still waiting to rebound. According to Zile, the most recent obstacle to getting back to solid financial ground is a program the Pleasanton Downtown Association and the city were hoping would help shore up struggling businesses downtown -- the closure of Main Street on weekends.
Zile said because out-of-town brides and their entourages have had difficulty finding parking, many are late to appointments, which delays the next appointment. Because she had to build in more time between clients, Zile has had to book four fewer appointments on Saturdays and Sundays.
"I'm losing $8,000 every weekend," Zile said.
The closures started during the summer of 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic and returned this year to give downtown restaurants and shops more space to expand operations outdoors.
A concept developed by the PDA and approved by the city, the "Weekend on Main" program returned for 2021, scheduled to run each Friday afternoon through Sunday evening until Labor Day.
The event has been popular with downtown visitors, increased foot traffic for some retailers and been a godsend to restaurants, but it has had a negative impact on some businesses.
"It's absolutely saving the restaurants," said Chris Beratlis, who has been a member of the PDA Board of Directors for seven years.
Beratlis recalled Nonni's Bistro's owner and head chef Jon Magnusson telling him how the opportunity to have street dining has been a boon for downtown restaurants. "Jon said to me, 'Thank God. We're saved!'" Beratlis said.
The PDA worked with the city and opened up parking spaces for public use during the closures, including a large lot a block off of Main Street. One business offered several parking spaces for J'aime Bridal clients in a lot close to the store, just off St. Mary Street, and put a sign out to make it easier to spot.
But Zile said when out-of-town clients' GPS devices are telling them to turn on Main Street and they are blocked by barricades, they get frustrated. When they do make it in, she said they are "frazzled." So instead of staying downtown to enjoy a lunch or dinner as they normally would, the brides and guests exit as soon as they can.
Zile was considering expanding to the space next to her shop, a property most recently leased by Rick's Picks, but, without a change in the weekend closure, "I can't drop $75,000 in tenant improvements," she said. "I have two kids, 10 employees and two seamstresses. This is a huge risk for me."
She believes the decision to close Main Street through Labor Day came without enough research and thought, and in comparison listed the many steps in the process for approval of a sign in front of a business.
"(The PDA) sent one survey, and made this decision," she said.
There was a survey sent to member businesses and, based on those results and feedback from the 2020 Main Street closure, the PDA board made a recommendation to the city to extend the event.
"The city agreed to go forward with the decision and it was affirmed by the city council," Pleasanton's deputy city manager Pam Ott said.
"The intention of the street closures for Weekend on Main is two-fold," she said, "to support all downtown businesses by providing additional space in which they can choose to expand as they work to recover from the impacts of COVID restrictions, and to encourage the community to reconnect with downtown while shopping, dining and using the services of the merchants."
PDA Board President Terri Terry said, "We are working with all our strength and creativity to bring downtown back as the best place to shop, dine, work, live and play."
Jim Denham from the Wine Steward, though, said the street closures are harming his business and it was "like a punch in the gut" to find out Main Street would be closed again on the weekends this summer.
"We felt it last year," Denham said of the slowing in traffic and decrease in sales. "But (the restaurants) are our neighbors and we're all downtown together. Last year Main Street was closed Friday from 2 through Sunday evening and we thought, yeah, let's applaud this, and support and observe. But we didn't see the same traffic or the same sales."
Denham wrote a lengthy letter to Mayor Karla Brown in which he outlined his objections to returning to the program, including when weather and fire impacted participation.
In the letter he wrote, "Last summer's weather manifestations -- very hot temperatures, wind, unhealthy smoke -- had us frequently looking up and down Main Street at a virtually vacant setting; a closed yet unused street.
"Last year the heat, smoke and wind kept people away," he said, noting that at the time of the interview last week Pleasanton was under a Red Flag Warning.
Denham and Zile looked first to the PDA for help but also contacted the city.
"We don't see the PDA as a solution. We feel like the PDA is political and slanted toward the restaurants," Denham said. "Two of the major voices of closing down Main Street are not on Main Street. They're south, without the parking pressure."
Though fairly new in his role as the PDA's executive director, Zac Grant has immersed himself in the community and has had conversations with business owners who are being impacted negatively by the street closures.
"I question the assumption that any one or two voices dominate PDA decision-making," Grant said. "Our board is diverse by design, with 11 representatives from every facet of our membership, including retail, restaurant, commercial, first-floor Main (Street), second-floor, off Main and more."
Grant continued, "I've seen our PDA leaders walking Main Street every day, visiting with fellow business owners from every perspective, and listening carefully."
"It's our job to save the businesses downtown," Beratlis said about the PDA board. "Our main goal is to promote economic vitality. We help all businesses alike."
Restaurants and some retailers are praising the PDA for creating and managing the event.
The manager of Superfly Wheels bike store, Mike Ralph, said Weekend on Main has been "very positive."
"We get more foot traffic, and the test drives are safer," he said, because customers can try out bikes on the street instead of the sidewalk. He also mentioned the new opportunity to have special events like BMX demonstrations in the street.
"Saturdays around here are very busy," Ralph said.
Jackie Huant, owner of Jacky's Art Studio, displays his handmade terrariums outside on weekends.
"It's still slow," Huant said of sales, "but I have more foot traffic. This is better."
Huant's neighbor, Armen Gasparyan, owner of Gamma Salon, said he hasn't had any effect on business.
"It's very well-organized," Gasparyan said of Weekend on Main. "I like it. It brings people together -- families and kids downtown."
While families and friends can be seen enjoying dinner and live music in the street, though, some visitors are downtown to make purchases, and some merchants fear lack of parking in front of their businesses will drive people away.
"Some people think 'Downtown's closed, so I'll go to BevMo or Total Wine because they're on the outskirts of town,'" Denham said. "And they leave an independent, downtown, family-owned store for a big box store."
"Access is so vital in a retailer's point of view," Denham said, explaining most people don't want to carry a case of wine two blocks.
Fred Nichandros, owner of Workbench True Value, has similar concerns.
"It's been reducing our business about 10% on those days," Nichandros said. "People like to drive away with their purchases, not carry them around. Some purchase things like paint or a 30-pound bag of dog food. People need to have access to load their purchases and drive away."
"There has been more foot traffic," he continued, "but it hasn't offset the loss because people with vehicles will buy more and larger items."
The PDA and the city representatives said they are working with merchants being impacted negatively.
For example, the city made the Railroad Street entrance into the Workbench True Value lot two-way, which helps for people who know about that access point. The city also allocated 20-minute and three-hour parking spaces in the Peters Street lot at Denham's request.
Downtown street closures were tried in many cities across the state and in the Tri-Valley. Some were successful, like in Danville, but others did not work well. First Street in downtown Livermore was closed to vehicles on weekends the summer of 2020. However, when 67% of the businesses surveyed by the city of Livermore responded that the street closures did not benefit them -- and many said it actually hurt their businesses -- First Street was reopened.
City and PDA officials said they will continue to work with businesses who are not reaping benefits from the weekend Main Street closure.
"As the start of Weekend on Main has gotten underway this year, the city has been contacted by a few merchants whose businesses have been impacted by this year's closures," Ott said. "We've listened to each of their concerns and are working with them to explore solutions that would allow them to better benefit from the closures."
Terry said, "We are pursuing multiple, unprecedented promotional strategies in partnership with the City of Pleasanton to bring the quickest possible relief to the widest possible audience."