I met Alex MacLachlan last week at Heritage Park on Grand Avenue and Juniper Street and we chatted about the rain and cancellation of the second Crusin’ Grand of 2016 and about the vibrant nature of Escondido’s busy, eclectic downtown on a rain- threatening Friday.
“Those guys with those nice cars, they don’t like to take them out of the driveway if there’s a chance that they’ll get a lot of spots… They put a lot of money into that paint and body and it becomes a big thing when you have to take hours cleaning their beloved vintage cars,” he said.
As president of the Downtown Business Association, MacLachlan is well versed on the area. He sold his Grand Avenue restaurant, the California Avocado Grill, to Swamis Cafe in late 2014, but the DBA board kept him on as president anyway.
He’s simply a good fit for the association. This is is hometown. As a young boy he delivered The Times-Advocate when it was a daily newspaper to downtown subscribers, pedaling his bicycle on familiar streets.
“I didn’t like collecting from the Alhiser Wilson Mortuary,” he remembered. His route covered from Third to Fifth avenues in the downtown area.
He said with a laugh that the local Winchell’s Donut House had been turned into a weight-loss studio. He also knew the history of the Arthur Murray Dance Studio across the street.
I turned the conversation to how the DBA was doing with its list of events.
Times-Advocate: So how is the Downtown Business Association doing at this point?
Alex MacLachlan: We’re just getting into the season and starting to make our preparations for the Spring Street Fair on May 15. We’re doing it with the Escondido Chamber of Commerce which has been our partner in it for years.
T-A: So what happened to the Crusin’ Grand’s wine tasting party (which was cancelled and reset for June 3)?
AM: Everything had to do with the weather because of what was forecast. …I talked with the gals at the city who felt that the rain was coming.
T-A: So how is your fundraising for the association?
AM: We’re doing well. We had a good 2015 which kind of set us up for this year. The first annual Escondido Tamale Festival went really well. We had a couple of other events that went really well.
T-A: That is scheduled for November, this year then?
AM: This year it will be November 5th.
T-A: Is that a better date?
AM: It is by the calendar because it puts us before we change the clocks (for Daylight Savings Time). So that gives us an extra hour of daylight. It helps on the logistics and people cleaning up at the end.
T-A: How much did you raise in funds? I heard that the DBA cut back some.
AM: We scaled our overhead way back in 2015 so it really doesn’t take that much to run it. It’s more just getting the bodies to do things and to be creative and find ways to promote downtown and to come up with people to collaborate with. It’s more about effort than it is about money.
T-A: How did you scale back? You mentioned that the office was kind of a pseudo office…
AM: Yeah, that was some of the things left over when part of the business license fees went to the promotion of the downtown. What tends to happen over time is you build up overhead and you build up staff, office equipment, stuff like that. It was more just a matter of when that (money) was eliminated and we knew we were on our own. We have people who have businesses and their time is very short, so we couldn’t have a bunch of overhead sitting there.
It’s a lot easier to be creative when you don’t have a nut that you have to pay every month.
So, yeah, we meet in the businesses of the board members. We meet at local restaurants, patios. We’ve gone digital. It’s just kind of what everyone’s doing these days. Everybody’s being really efficient with their time and money.
T-A: I’m always wondering about preservation of the downtown buildings and spaces. Is there a committee for that?
AM: Yes there is and there’s a historical society and it probably concerns them more about conserving homes in the district and stuff.
T-A: I love that Arthur Murray Dance Studio. It’s just an old town type of thing.
AM: It was an insurance agency for years and years and it really fits in with the dance studio and to see them practicing through their plate glass windows at night. It is very cool.
T-A: So it isn’t an old dance studio? I thought it was something out of the 1940’s or something.
AM: No. It’s only been around about a year or two.
T-A: I like the way they have preserved the old theatre (across Grand from the park).
AM: There was a plan to have a dinner theatre there about five years ago. But apparently the infrastructure improvements that would have to be done and the retrofit on the building were cost-prohibitive. It would have been nice to have the old renovated theatre even if it was just for schools and local dance groups and things like that.
T-A: Has the City Council written any zoning codes for when you own an old building?
AM: No, it’s part of the downtown plan and it’s kind of broken up into zones, kind of the block. Whether you’re in the 100 block or 200 block and it goes out in concentric circles, I believe.
They have plans in general for facades’ improvements and things like that and they just announced the amount of money they have budgeted for that. I can’t remember the exact figure.
That (subsidy) does a nice job helping business owners to fix up the front, or the back, of their building. I know it helped me when I was renovating my building. The Burger Bench did a real nice job and Cute Cakes down on the west end did a beautiful job, including a mural. It’s a real beneficial program.
T-A: So, do some buildings need to be torn down?
AM: Well, some of the investment money would be there if the policy was right. So I guess that’s the struggle, between keeping your budget intact and encouraging investment. It’s a fine investment.
T-A: Are you going to start another business?
AM: Oh, I’m sure I will. I mean, I always have some kind of business going. This last year I renovated a home and a property. So that kept me busy. So, I’m kicking around ideas for my next big thing.
T-A: Any hints about what it will be?
AM: Too premature for that. But if it does come to fruition it will be located down here. It’s just a matter that a lot would have to happen first before you make any announcement about that.
T-A: So what else is coming up?
AM: We’re concentrating on the street fair right now. We’re in preliminary preparations for the tamale festival, even though it’s months away. We’re working with sponsorships and logistics…
T-A: And having enough tamales?
AM: … yes and marketing strategies and tamale vendors. And next Saturday we’ll be going up to the Riverside Tamale Festival to see if we can recruit some people to come down here. I went to the Indio International Tamale Festival in December and we got a real good response from vendors from as far away as San Jose and L.A. and they’re interested in coming here. I guess they kind of do the circuit.
T-A: The tamale circuit huh?
AM: Hmmm it could be. They’re (tamales) pretty popular and we thought we could get enough San Diego-based vendors for our first annual festival, But it was a lot harder than we anticipated because of the rules for outdoor cooking. For restaurants to do outdoor cooking is completely different (from indoor). The permits aren’t cheap.
If you own a restaurant, you have to have extra people to (make tamales). We had some great people, but they were just overwhelmed.
The tamale champion, Lucy, over at El Tejate (Restaurant, 205 W. Mission Ave.) man, she did all this work and then had to go and work the night shift after the festival. It was a long day for them.
So we hope to have a lot more vendors and we’re just going to throw the net out a lot wider this time.
T-A: That’s great, you’re doing the research, going to Indio to check it out.
AM: It’s a pretty good gig if you can get it.
T-A: It was still a great festival even if they did run out of tamales.
AM: We made it a point to tell vendors that there was going to be a lot more people coming than we expected because there were so many hits to our website in the last two days.
T-A: Wasn’t it 4,000 or so?
AM: No, I can’t remember the exact number but it was well over 10,000 hits. So, we put out the word, saying we think you better bring out more tamales. But … some of these vendors were being very conservative based on what has happened in the past. So we hope that it will be such a successful event that they won’t be unhappy if they have 500 tamales too many, because they are going to sell so many.
T-A: How is Crusin’ Grand doing? Do you still have the same number of cars? Do you have the same old guys or do other groups come in?
AM: It’s still Steve Waldron (owner of Top End Tees, 146 E. Grand). It started with the DBA and members collaborated to start Crusin’ Grand and Steve took it over and he’s done a great job.
T-A: How many years has it been going on?
AM: I think it’s in its 17th year. It’s been bread and butter for the restaurants down here. But for some folks it hurts because some of the parking gets taken up early. We’ve had a lot of communication with the city and businesses to try to mitigate that as much as possible.
T-A: Parking is the main problem?
AM: The classic car owners will want to get a good spot so they come down a little earlier than they’re supposed to. We don’t want to discourage them so we have to walk a fine line between them and the business owners.
But having a lot of cars and lots of people down her is a good problem to have. A lot of other historical downtowns would like to have our problem.
T-A: Is there any ratings of Number One downtowns?
AM: (Laughing) You know, I’m sure there are, but they use some kind of polling. They use so many metrics. So you start thinking, that’s getting kind of weird.
T-A: Some other downtowns haven’t fared so well as Escondido has, have they?
AM: (When cities) are in transition … it can get painful. I think Escondido has done a pretty good job at that if you listen to people’s opinions. I think we still have a little ways to go.
I’ve met with the new city manager (Graham Mitchell) a few times and I think he has some good ideas about it, because he really loves this downtown. But I know people are interested and concerned and they want to make a better downtown. They think that’s great, but there’s always room for improvement and getting more residential housing nearer to Grand Avenue is something that is in the works at least in the planning stages.
It’s a little further out, but a large-sized housing development has been proposed on the old police department site. So they’re getting close.
T-A: What about the downtown hospital (that is downsizing, possibly for a sale by its owner, Palomar Health)?
AM: I’ve heard city leaders having pow- wows about it and I’ve given my opinion here and there.
T-A: Palomar Health has to figure out what it wants to do with it in the first place right?
AM: That’s a tough call. I don’t know if they’re selling the building?
T-A: What could you possibly use it for besides a hospital?
AM: I think it would have to be multi-use. It would have to be probably segmented up by floors, maybe a new hotel, high-rise condos, maybe a boutique hotel on top. But you could throw ideas like that around all you want.
T-A: Nobody is giving me any projections or information.
AM: Well, I am just a fan of downtown throwing out ideas and you know, ideas are easy, but, boy, implementation is the hard part.