Monday, August 07, 2006

Downtown Revitalized

Downtown Revitalized -- Officials Say Government Center is Just What Fairfield Needed
By Mike Corpos

The backlit fountains outside the county government center on Texas Street in downtown Fairfield create a spectacular visual effect after sunset. (Mike McCoy/Daily Republic)

FAIRFIELD - More than a year after the last county employees moved into the new government center in downtown Fairfield, the ripple effect of the massive building's presence is beginning to be felt.

When the government center was still in the planning stages, the hope for city, county and downtown officials was that it would be a catalyst to much-needed changes and the revitalization of downtown Fairfield.

So far it has done just that, local officials said, adding that while change is happening, it's usually slow going.

"The new county building has been a tremendous asset," said Emily Low of the Fairfield Downtown Association. "A lot of the merchants here supported the project."

Once the county building became a sure thing, other projects started to materialize, Low added.

"McInnis Corner (the northwest corner of Texas and Jefferson streets) - that would not have happened without the county building," she said. That project was completed and opened about a year ago - shortly after the government center opened.

She also said the further concentration of county operations in downtown Fairfield has boosted many businesses.

"It's also just the influx of additional people - I see them walking down the street with our restaurant guide in their hands, so I know they've been (to the county building)," Low said.

"It's helped, we're seeing people down here that we didn't see before."

A large portion of the county's 3,000 employees work at the government center or in the neighboring county buildings.

With the government center so close to downtown, it's shortened the distance for people to travel for lunch, and for the weekly farmers' market, which is held on Jefferson Street.

"We've definitely noticed a shift in the demographic at our farmers' market," Low said, noting many of the customers there are county employees.

The county government center has just begun to serve its purpose in terms of bringing on a revival of the downtown area, added Curt Johnston, assistant director of economic development for the city.

"All along, we knew that government investment alone will not change the area," Johnston said. "But rather it has been a catalyst to other projects."

Johnston also pointed to McInnis corner as one example, adding more development is planned for the northeast corner of that intersection.

"Change in downtown, or in any district, is going to be incremental," he said. "We're taking small steps, but it's much different than it was 10 years ago."

Since the planning process for the county building began, a number of building renovations have also helped bring new life to downtown Fairfield, Johnston said.

"Pepper Belly's is a big one," he said. "Four or five years ago it was a struggling one-screen theater, now it's a popular comedy club."

All of downtown is looking better, Johnston added, "You drive down the street and see buildings freshly painted."

The key to getting to this point was for the city and the county to work together closely to see that both sides benefited from the project.

"The project represents the county's commitment to downtown," he said.

John Vasquez, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, agreed.

"It's very important for the city and the county to work together."

"That was the idea when planning started in 1997 or 1998," Silva added. "The project brought another 700-plus county employees into one location."

The plaza in front of the building has served to attract people to downtown since the building opened, Vasquez added.

On a recent sweltering day, he saw a number of people gathering at the fountain on the plaza.

"There were probably 30 people in the fountain, running and playing - out there with beach towels and everything," he said. "Any time you can include a plaza like that, it allows people to gather. That's really important."

As far as the revitalization of downtown, Vasquez said it's visible on a daily basis.

"If you walk around downtown anywhere between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., you'll see (county) people everywhere," he said. "We're already starting to see the effect migrate down (Texas Street)."

That is exactly the effect the city was hoping for, Johnston said. But more needs to be done. Specifically, the area needs more mixed-use development, combining commercial with office space.

Future hopes for the area include enhancing residential options in the downtown area, as well as finding more uses for the plaza at the county building.

"We want to create downtown as an entertainment location as well," Johnston said. "There are places like the Fairfield Center for the Creative Arts - we want to maximize the potential of those facilities."

Reach Mike Corpos at 427-6977 or

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