Trends: Benicia Main Street: The Driving Force Behind Our Downtown



Main, Historic Railroad Depot

Jerry Bowles

In the Frank Capra movie It's A Wonderful Life,  a depressed George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, questioned what his town would have been like if he had never existed. Happily, an angel showed George that his existence made a huge difference to his family and the community of Bedford Falls. Watching the movie is a holiday tradition, but this time it provides a parallel to Benicia, and the Benicia Main Street Program.

In 1987, a group of citizens and the city council petitioned and qualified Benicia as one of the California Main Street charter cities, organized to protect and promote Benicia as a viable historic town. Through the years, a dedicated staff, board of directors and many volunteers have made Benicia a model for other cities throughout California and the United States. Benicia Main Street has kept our town vital with the Main Street philosophy, a  4-point program of organization, economic restructuring, design and promotion, which was developed through the National Historic Trust.

Let's pretend that Main Street didn't exist the last 30 years. First off, forget the Benicia Certified Farmers Market that will begin its 25th year this April. There would be no one to bring weekly farm fresh produce April-October, attracting thousands to our downtown for an evening of shopping, entertainment and community gathering. The City of Benicia funded the market on a one-time basis in 1993, with the goal that it had to sustain itself in  the future. Through the years Main Street has been able to grow the farmers market, with certified farmers who come from as far away as Watsonville, Point Reyes, and farms in Stanislaus County. Several of the original farmers will be still be participating in 2017.

The Christmas Parade and Holiday Open House would no longer be funded. There would be no money for insurance, clean up, portable potties or volunteers for the horse-drawn wagons rides. Lack of staff to coordinate the parade, entertainment, applicants, judges and awards would steal the holiday spirit from Benicia's residents.

The  two-day Fourth of July celebration, which epitomizes Benicia's small town charm, would not take place since there wouldn’t be an organization to raise funds for the fireworks, organize and staff our beloved Torchlight Parade and provide entertainment for the Picnic in the Park. The residents would have to go to neighboring cities to celebrate Independence Day.

Halloween activities, such as the Children's Costume Contest and Parade, Haunted Depot, Ghost Walks and Scarecrow Contest would magically disappear without the Main Street staff and volunteers who work countless hours for children and families during the month of October.

The Waterfront Festival, Benicia’s only 2-day lineup of nonstop food, music and fun both days, attracts music fans and wine and beer lovers from around the Bay Area. This quality event brings shoppers and diners to the downtown, which helps fund the free events and promotions held year round. It could not take place because there would be no one to produce the event, coordinate volunteers, receive in-kind donations, rent equipment, book entertainment and handle the publicity, in addition to marketing throughout Northern California.
Downtown Benicia Restaurant Week, Taste of First Street, three annual Wine Walks (The Wine & Chocolate event sold out last month), St. Patrick's Day and Zombie Beer Crawls would be gone. The Taste of First Street would not be around to showcase the interesting mix of cuisine on First Street, with over 20 restaurants participating. There would be no one to get the permitting, promote the event and attract volunteers to work it.

California Main Street City sign in Benicia’s City Park

Jerry Bowles

California Main Street City sign in Benicia’s City Park


The Teddy Bear Tea Parties would be gone, as well as Pamper Me Week and the “Where's Jack London?” promotions. These retail events draw thousands of potential customers to downtown Benicia year round. Local charities would not benefit from the partnering and fundraising opportunities through these downtown events. As far as the appearance of the downtown, take away the benches, flower planters, trash containers, banners, and the restoration of the Southern Pacific Rail Depot, which houses the Main Street program. It was Main Street that identified the original transportation grant of $250,000 that funded the building’s renovations, along with thousands of in in-kind donations that Main Street and the City received to stabilize and restore this historic treasure. It has been home to Benicia Main Street since 2002, welcoming visitors on a daily basis and answering questions about the town and why there is a rail depot at the waterfront.

Downtown  Dollars and the See's Candy fundraising store have had an impact on the success of retaining our local merchants and enticing new ones. Without these efforts, a boarded up downtown resembling a ghost town is a real possibility. Without such a vital downtown, Benicia's property values might not be the highest in Solano County.

First Street remains the heart of the city. It’s our gathering place that fosters a feeling of connectedness to the community. It’s our public face, leaving a lasting impression of when people are first introduced to the town. Downtown Benicia has an enormous impact on those making the decision to live or work here.

George Bailey got the message that he, indeed, was very important to the town of Bedford Falls. Benicia Main Street is our George, and the organization that provides us with such a wonderful life. Happy 30th to them!

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