GUSTINE - The city is continuing its campaign to bring new businesses to town while also working to provide support for existing enterprises.
A City Hall restructuring earlier this year underscored that priority.
Jami Westervelt was named economic/community development director, a newly-minted position with a business focus.
Since that time, Westervelt has been the point person for those looking to set up shop in Gustine, helping shepherd prospective business owners through whatever permitting and approval processes apply while also helping match their needs with available spaces.
“Anybody who comes in and wants to open a business in Gustine comes to me. That allows me to get it on my radar and help them move forward in whatever way we can,” Westervelt explained.
Sometimes people come in toying with an idea, she said, while other times a prospective business owner is looking for an available space with specific amenities.
“I have worked with Realtors, and have been keeping tabs on what retail spaces are available and what each has (in terms of space and facilities),” Westervelt said.
While the city would love to attract additional interest from larger retailers, she reflect, with a population of under 6,000 the community is more likely to be attracting smaller ventures....often with their own unique niche or appeal.
“You can’t compete with Target or Amazon but if you have something that is unique or a specialty, a lot of small communities do well with those,” Westervelt commented. “Small businesses are key to us.”
Overtures have been extended to larger retailers, she added.
“We have tried and tried. At our size, the answer is the same,” Westervelt shared. “We have to be realistic about what we are and have to offer. It is more about doing the best with what we have and what we can do as opposed to looking at what somebody else has and trying to compete.”
For a variety of reasons, she added, not every inquiry from a prospective business owner leads to a store opening.
But Gustine has seen its share of business development success stories, she noted, with a barbecue joint, art gallery and nutrition drink business among those that have opened with assistance from City Hall.
Westervelt said a massage therapist is also moving forward with plans to open in Gustine.
And, she said, city officials have been in contact with a grocer with an interest in Gustine. Westervelt said her understanding is that the chain will soon be sending out letters of interest to a couple of property owners whose buildings would be suitable for a market.
That prospective company operates locations at other valley locations similar to Gustine, she noted.
“We are hopeful that will go through,” Westervelt told Mattos Newspapers. “We would like to have a full service grocery in town. That is important to the community. If it doesn’t go forward, we will probably bring some creative options to the council.”
One of the primary challenges in attracting new businesses is finding suitable - and available - locations.
Westervelt said that the city plans to more actively enforce a 2016 ordinance which requires commercial property owners to keep their buildings up to code and, if vacant, available for rent to a prospective business tenant.
Nearly a dozen property are being notified by the city that they need to come into compliance, she added.
“We have space right now that doesn’t have anybody in it but is not (available),” Westervelt stated. “If there is no one in it, the owner needs to be working toward filling that space, not just have it shuttered.”
That vacant building scenario, she added, presents a very real impediment to the city’s business development effort.
“It is sad to have a potential business owner come to you and say that they tried to find out about a building but (the owner) didn’t want to rent it,” she commented. “I have seen that situation.”
Furthermore, Westervelt said, downtown buildings with windows papered over “gives the impression that it is a dying community.”
She stressed that the city will work with property owners making good faith efforts to comply with the ordinance - but reiterated that the city’s intent is to more actively enforce the code.
Business retention is another element of her job.
Toward that goal, a meeting was held with merchants and a second is planned.
Westervelt said the plans to host a business expo in February which will feature experts in various business-related topics as well as the opportunity for individual business counseling. She said she is working with UC Merced’s Small Business Development Center on that project.
Small businesses have traditionally been an important part of the community fabric, reflected Westervelt, and the city is working to do everything it can to help Gustine’s downtown fully realize its potential.
“I would like to see the buildings full, and a more vibrant downtown in the evening (with) places for families to go not only during events but after,” she said. “It is important that we have businesses, for the appearance of the town, for the convenience and for the taxes. Sales taxes are an important part of our budget.”