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‘I think it’s getting better’ | Downtown Sacramento business owners optimistic but say more needs to be done

Reacting to Tuesday's State of Downtown Sacramento event, local business owners point to homelessness as an ongoing problem but say foot traffic is picking up.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Depending on who you ask, California is either the fifth or even fourth largest economy in the entire world, and yet the downtown core of its capital is struggling.

COVID-19 prompted an exodus of workers from which it hasn’t recovered. Homelessness is impacting businesses and people who live there.

However, at the State of Downtown Sacramento event, local leaders said things are looking up.

But are Downtown business owners feeling as optimistic?

At Capital Books on K Street, co-owner Ross Rojek said the state of Downtown Sacramento is improving.

“I think it's getting better. It feels like it's getting better,” he said.

But more needs to be done, he said, including fixing the lighting.

“Half these lights on K Street don't work,” he said. “Lighting at night is important, you know, especially when you're talking the train tracks and the people on the scooters and people in two bars on two different blocks that are walking back and forth. And if you want people to come from the Kings arena down here, then the 800, the 900, 1000-block all need to be well-lit. And they're not.”

He attended the annual State of Downtown event Tuesday morning, where he heard from local leaders like Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Downtown Sacramento Partnership executive director Michael Ault.

“Obviously, any urban center in America has had some challenges the last several years,” Ault said. “We want to now start saying, ‘Welcome people back. Come back to the office.’ What kind of energy and excitement? You know, we're in the building this morning, the Convention Center that doubled the size – half-billion-dollar investment that, you know, is bringing major conventions back to town. Last year, we saw six new hotels open. So we're trying to capitalize on some of that momentum and just let people know we've missed them and downtown is where you should be.”

“I think we still have a ways to go, but we're on the right track when it comes to making the Downtown cleaner and safer,” Steinberg said.

Both men believe Downtown Sacramento is better now than it was a year ago.

“We now have 30+ million dollars to redevelop the Old Sacramento Waterfront. Our hotel occupancy is at 99% of pre-pandemic levels. We're going to bring back second Saturdays in the Midtown,” Steinberg said.

Pre-COVID, Ault said, the Downtown core had some 100,000 employees working there – many of whom went to work from home during the pandemic. Many still are.

“We were in the 10-15% of them back. We're now seeing that pick up a little bit; we're about a little more than 50% back. That number is continuing to trend up,” Ault said. “When you look at the small sandwich places and the coffee places, they rely on the workers being here.”

Capital Books also relies on foot traffic, along with Rojek’s other business, There & Back Café on Cathedral Square, just around the corner from the bookstore. 

“This January-February is up over last year, January-February…We're up enough that it's significant, which tells me it's just foot traffic,” Rojek said. “I'm seeing more people on the street. And that also helps. The more people that are on the street…the homeless people kind of-- they fade into the background more.”

He said the homelessness crisis impacts all businesses downtown—and he wants to see more permanent solutions.

“I need one of them to go away because all he's doing is screaming. But at the same time, somebody needs to do something for him when they can,” Rojek said. “If I encourage somebody to go off of our block to go somewhere else, they're just on somebody else's blocked bothering them. And so it's a no-win situation either way for us…I need to have a mostly clean, safe street for my customers to come to, especially the families that are coming downtown.”

“When you've got sidewalks blocked, you've got, you know, trash and debris, it's important not only from the psyche of what downtown is but also on the perception,” Ault said. “To say it's our top priority would almost be underselling it. We are spending the majority of our time and resources addressing the reality on the streets.”

Steinberg said the city is “now are up to 17 outreach and maintenance workers out in the Downtown, up from, you know, just a couple before the pandemic.”

He mentioned the new legal agreement and partnership between the city and county, binding the two local governments together in their now-shared approach to addressing homelessness.

Rojek said — he wants to see more action.

“The difference between,  ‘Here's our goal and here's our agenda’ and getting it done is a whole lot of little pieces along the way that just needs to get done.”

Steinberg calls this a re-defining moment for downtown Sacramento, not just restoring it to pre-pandemic levels but making it even better. For example, he said, plans call for more focus on new residential spaces and entertainment - not just foot traffic from workers.

As ABC10 reported last month, Governor Newsom announced the state is looking for a developer to turn three buildings in the Downtown Sacramento core—into apartments. They’ll be a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, adding thousands of new units.

Though the project is in its early stages and housing wouldn’t be move-in ready for several years.

Watch: Gas Prices: California senate proposal could penalize oil companies for "price gouging"

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