Overshadowed by the Nut Tree road stop and retail center, downtown Vacaville doesn’t always get as much attention by tourists and locals. However, it only took one visit to convince Leslie Silver that it was the perfect spot to start her new business.
The Illinois transplant and her husband, who had recently accepted a job in Walnut Creek, needed a place to launch a local chapter of School of Rock, the performance-based music school that unofficially inspired the 2003 film starring Jack Black. Silver previously managed a School of Rock outlet in the Chicago area.
“When we got to Vacaville, the very first time we came here, there was a concert downtown,” says Silver, who debuted School of Rock in late February. “I thought, if the community has good schools and this many people are excited about coming out to see live music, then this might be the place that we could call home.”
Sacramento-based SacYard Community Tap House has plans this summer to debut Beer 40, an outdoor-only beer garden, on a vacant 8,000-square-foot lot. Beer 40 took advantage of a one-time effort to lease vacant city-owned lots for three months at the cost of $1.
Much like Silver, city officials and business owners are recognizing the potential of downtown Vacaville. In an attempt to shake its reputation as a 9-to-5 neighborhood, the downtown corridor has been the focus of numerous revitalization efforts in recent years. Recently commissioned retail strategy and connectivity plans spell out ambitions for a vibrant, 24-hour, pedestrian-friendly downtown to attract young adults and families from all over the city and beyond.
With its buildings with historical architectural details, large town square and proximity to a park with a creek, the downtown area offers elements that could make some Main Street coordinators salivate. Crowds come on the weekends for concerts, craft fairs, farmers markets and wine strolls, filling the town square. However, with its high volume of office use and low volume of housing units, downtown Vacaville can feel very quiet and empty on weekday evenings.
The problem is not commercial vacancies, which have remained low in recent years. “Our biggest issue right now is that we don’t have a very healthy retail mix,” says Brooke Fox, executive director of the Downtown Vacaville Business Improvement District. “We don’t have a lot of vacant storefronts; we just have a lot of nonactive storefronts.”
In the last few decades, as retail in Vacaville shifted to the outlet mall and the Nut Tree, the city relaxed its acceptable uses for the downtown core. “A lot of service-oriented businesses moved in, a lot of mortgage and real estate,” Fox says. “It becomes less of a walkable experience, less of a destination experience for people.”
All the city’s goals for placemaking and connectivity rests on attracting businesses that not only draw people downtown, but keep them there. “A lot of our businesses that close at 5 o’clock — they’re the backbone of Vacaville, but we want to see a lot of vibrancy in the evening hours as well,” says Tim Padden, the city’s economic development manager. “The other part of it is just getting more residential units. We’ve got a couple of projects that we’ve been working on.”
On the business front, there are some glimmers of hope. Sonoma-based Sonoma Springs Brewing Co. plans to build a taproom and beer garden at the historic Carnegie library building on Main Street. Meanwhile, the owners of Sacramento-based SacYard Community Tap House have plans this summer to debut Beer 40, an outdoor-only beer garden, on a vacant 8,000-square-foot lot. These are the types of businesses that could transform critical sections of the downtown corridor.
Beer 40 took advantage of a one-time effort to lease vacant city-owned lots for three months at the cost of $1. “There’s not much competition out there because there’s no dog-friendly, family-friendly, kid-friendly stuff out there like SacYard,” co-owner Dan Thebeau says. “After looking at the piece of land and running the demographics, we see the opportunity to hit a home run out there.”
In a state without redevelopment funds, this initiative is one of the ways that Vacaville and the Downtown Vacaville Business Improvement District are attracting new businesses downtown. “When I speak with other Main Street coordinators that have funds, they can offer facade improvement grants, they can offer low-interest loans,” Fox says. “We have to get creative and try and figure out ways around that.”
One business that benefited from this creativity is Heritage House. British-born partners Siobhan Magee and Catherine Owen purchased the downtown Vacaville restaurant three years ago and pushed it to new levels of popularity. When the wait time for weekend brunch reached 90 minutes, Magee and Owen needed more seating. Outdoor seating is scarce in Vacaville, but the city approved a special permit that allowed Heritage House to add tables on the sidewalk, increasing capacity by 16 people.
“The city was super supportive of any changes that we wanted to make,” Magee says. “They want businesses to thrive downtown.”
Of course, the economic downturn and uncertainty associated with the coronavirus quarantine threaten to undermine years of revitalization efforts. “We’re at kind of a critical point right now, where there’s been a lot of focus, and so now things need to start happening,” Fox says. “Prior to coronavirus, we were making some great strides. We were making some inroads with our property owners and our merchants, so they could understand that they were part of a bigger picture,” she says. “Right now, the focus is to try and preserve and support our merchants that we do have.”
The shelter-in-place order forced most downtown Vacaville businesses to make a sharp pivot. School of Rock switched to online lessons, and Heritage House briefly closed, then became a temporary shop providing supplies like toilet paper and eggs. Heritage House reopened with a new focus on its most popular menu item, classic British fish and chips. “If it hadn’t been for the fish and chips, we would have been in serious trouble,” Owen says. “We probably would have had to close the doors and walk away.”
For her part, Silver still believes in the promise of downtown Vacaville. “I just invested a tremendous amount of our money into this space,” she says. “We believe strongly that the community and the downtown area is a place worth investing in.”