Old Town, New Challenges

Acuity with Downtown Sacramento Partnership's Janie Desmond Ison

Back Q&A Apr 1, 2014 By Douglas Curley

A sixth generation Sacramentan, Desmond Ison and her husband Jim Ison are owner/partners of three Sacramento area businesses: Steamers restaurant in Old Sacramento, Café Vinoteca on Fair Oaks Boulevard and Puddles, a children’s shop in Lyon Village.

Janie Desmond Ison, 54, is the 2014 board chair of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. She also has more than 20 years of involvement with the Old Sacramento Business Association. A sixth generation Sacramentan, Desmond Ison and her husband Jim Ison are owner/partners of three Sacramento area businesses: Steamers restaurant in Old Sacramento, Café Vinoteca on Fair Oaks Boulevard and Puddles, a children’s shop in Lyon Village.

“Doing business in Old Sacramento is a very 
different animal. It has its challenges and its charms. I focus on the charms. The challenges down here are a lot like watching the movie ‘Groundhog Day.’ You go to the association meetings where people 
are saying and complaining about the same things they have for 20 years.”

“But the bottom line is there are a handful of us that really maintain the continuity for Old Sacramento. It’s not the city, it’s not the state and it’s not the local agencies. What makes Old Sacramento work are the property owners and merchants that have been here for a long time.”

“People don’t realize that if you’re a business owner, every single thing that touches you or is touched by you wants something from you. What you have to do to just open your doors can be very daunting. Nothing can ever happen quick enough for a business owner. Especially when you have dumped millions of dollars into a project or asset. The city and other agencies sometimes don’t have the same urgencies that you have, and that can be very frustrating for a business owner. The Downtown Sacramento Partnership has been a good advocate for those concerns.”

“How the development of the entertainment and sports complex and the surrounding downtown region plays out is both a great opportunity and challenge for Old Sacramento. Whether it’s the new complex, the revamp of the Downtown Plaza, the railyards or a streetcar line, we have to stop and determine what the impact will be on Old Sac.”

“We want to make sure Old Sacramento is not cut off from all the new, exciting developments. We need to be assured that people will be able to walk through the mall and under the tunnel to Old Sac safely and smoothly, both during construction and after. If and when things get going at the railyards, we need the same smooth access. We can never have another issue like the construction of Interstate 5, which to this day has separated downtown and Capitol Mall from Old Sacramento and the riverfront.”

“Ingress and egress on game nights is a concern. The Firehouse Restaurant and others in the food and beverage business really just get started about 5-6 p.m. There needs to be a joint marketing effort by all parties concerned that educates consumers on the availability of parking for Old Sac patrons. The last thing we want to happen is for Friday and Saturday night regulars to see a backup of cars heading downtown and decide to keep on driving elsewhere.”

“With change comes challenge, and with challenge comes opportunity. That’s what we are looking at here. I believe the Downtown Sacramento Partnership and the Convention and Visitors Bureau are well aware of the unique asset the region has in Old Sacramento. There is nowhere in the world like Old Sac. It is the epicenter of the biggest Gold Rush in the history of mankind. I just think sometimes people have to be reminded of that.”

“What I love about Old Sacramento is that we are not a mall. Nobody is telling us what we have to do. We are not required to have set business hours. We are not required to sell certain items. The retail mix is fairly good down here. However, this autonomy can be a double-edged sword. It is up to us to keep some merchants aware of best business practices, like not putting tacky things on the boardwalk and keeping Christmas lights up until July. I consider us all to be stewards of the district.”

“The first thing a newcomer to Old Sac says is, ‘You need to activate the water front.’ Well OK, go ahead. It’s not that easy. When I worked for the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau on the Bridge-to-Bridge event in 2000 (a boat race between Tower Bridge and the I Street bridge), I had to deal with 24 separate agencies. It was a major headache. We also tried the River Otter Taxi service. It ran into some operational issues and may have been a little ahead of its time. The current river access situation is unfortunate. I hear about new plans all the time; I’m sure someday they will come to fruition. Not sure if I’ll still be here then, but it will happen.”
“For small-business owners, the rollout of Obamacare has been overwhelming. It’s to the point where your head spins. We have so many people giving us advice. All of them are telling us different things. You don’t know what to believe. With our businesses, we are under the employee limit. Our employees know they can go on the exchange if they want to. The reality is, that’s the furthest thing from most of their minds. Most are young and question why they need it.”

“The new federal minimum wage increase makes no sense to me whatsoever. We pay our employees what they are worth to the business. Most of our employees currently make more than the state minimum wage. When you add tips in, our servers make more than minimum wage. It’s less at Steamers because of the diner-type menu, but at Café Vinoteca they can average $20 to $30 an hour when you add in tips. There should be some sort of mechanism that credits the employer for the wage plus average tip earnings.”

“For a place like Steamers, for me to cover the ever-increasing minimum wage, I’d have to charge $3 for a cup of coffee. Who’s going to pay that? This has forced me to think about how I can replace these employees through some sort of technology. My management employees are paid well. The rest are young people doing remedial jobs, and most are also in school working toward something bigger and better. To me, these minimum wage increases are a slap in the face to business owners. The government is saying we’re not taking care of our employees. What we pay now is already a challenge for us as far as making ends meet at the end of 
the day.”


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