Since returning from a trip to Austin, Texas, Richard Beene has been comparing that city’s downtown vs. Bakersfield, and openly wondering what it would take to spruce up Bakersfield’s downtown.
During a recent episode of his “The Richard Beene Show,” Beene had three guests, including unexpected calls from former city of Bakersfield Redevelopment Director Donna Kunz and current Ward 2 City Councilman Andrae Gonzalez, who weighed in on the topic.
For weeks, however, Beene has been arguing that the city has been overly optimistic about its trash and cleanliness issue, and has been openly critical of Mayor Karen Goh’s assessment that the trash situation wasn’t that bad. After his trip to Austin, Beene argued that the Texas state capital was better organized and prepared to handle its trash issues, and to keep its downtown fresh and vibrant.
“I was so impressed with Austin and how clean their downtown is,” Beene said on a recent show.
In a phone interview, Kunz pushed back against comparing Austin’s professional efforts versus largely volunteer ones by the city of Bakersfield.
“We were limited to what we could do,” Kunz explained. “We couldn’t really get involved in the market research, the music, the arts, the event type things. We were trying to get the infrastructure of the car and bringing back things like The Padre hotel and other things.”
Kunz said Austin’s efforts featured a $7 million budget and was made up of a coalition of property owners, and that model has not been easy to replicated in Bakersfield.
‘It’s hard to compare,” said Kunz, who is doing some consulting work for businesses in Bakersfield. “(The city) can’t focus all of their attention downtown. If Bakersfield really wants to go to the next level, where you’re comparing it something like Austin, then the business owners are going to have to decide if they’re going to form their own property-based improvement district.”
Later during the episode, Beene interviewed Downtown Austin Alliance Vice President Bill Brice about that city’s challenges with its downtown.
“Our organization was founded back in 1993 as a public improvement district,” Brice said. “We are funded by a special tax that the downtown commercial property owners agreed to assess themselves over and above their other taxes.
“Part of that includes the Ambassador team that you saw. That Ambassador team provides cleaning and other safety and hospitality services in the downtown area, including picking up litter or cleaning up any kind of mess out there.”
Brice said when the alliance was founded in 1993 that improving the cleanliness of downtown Austin was a top priority for businesses. Fast forward nearly 25 years later and downtown Austin is one of Texas’ top destinations with the state capitol building, a vibrant night life and live music scene and scores of restaurants.
In an era where redevelopment agencies have been killed in California, Kunz said it’s critical for cities to move forward and not stagnate when it comes to maintaining vibrant city spaces and services. For Kunz that means working to create a business-supported improvement district in downtown.
“This is being generated because of those various concerns that you have,” Kunz told Beene.
Later in the show, Ward 2 City Councilman Andrae Gonzalez, who represents the downtown area, called into the show to outline some of his plans for downtown.
“We need a safer, cleaner downtown,” Gonzalez said. “My biggest goal is to get a lot of people downtown to spend money.”