Growing up across the Straits in Crockett (pop. 3300), I marveled at the strong sense of civic pride in Sugar City.
Residents — Crocket-tiles, we called ourselves — could belong to three, four, five or more organizations, making the town rich with activity and fraternity. Those of us born in that era were lucky; we got to witness the last hurrah of the downtown, the heydays of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
But change came suddenly.
I started working summers in 1970 — this is my 50th year in hardware — when, overnight, residents started racing out of town to shop the new El Portal Plaza in San Pablo, the El Cerrito Plaza, and the infamous Larwin Plaza in Vallejo (now Vallejo Plaza). Downtown Crockett instantly got quiet and as business folks retired, they simply closed shop.
Returning from Cal in 1980 to step into my family’s hardware store, I was very unsettled. To combat the decline, we formed the Crockett of Commerce; I served as its charter president, organizing, staging activities and events, and, alongside the rest of the Commerce members, promoting the town as best I could. But the die was cast. It broke my heart to leave Crockett. We took over Dan’s Ace Hardware on Valentine’s Day 1992 and thus preserved the family legacy, ready to celebrate our Centennial next year.
Walking downtown Benicia during the pandemic is reminiscent of the Crockett I left behind. Businesses are closed, some are boarded, the streets can be terribly quiet. It may seem a bit depressing now, but have faith. Of this, I am confident: Benicia will not suffer Crockett’s destiny! With a strong demographic, a rich historical past, and a perennially active group of civic leaders who embrace and promote the town’s tourist appeal, Benicia has a great foundation. However, there are steps we can take now to ensure a speedy recovery.
Rebuild, Rebrand and Remind
It is estimated that one quarter of all shopping malls in the United States will close within five years. The shopping void left by their vacancy will create tremendous opportunities in the retail marketplace. Observant and creative entrepreneurs will be looking to test their concepts and ideas on the public. And upon opening shop, they will need not only space, but a welcoming audience. Benicia must be ready to reach out and grab these enterprising innovators. This is essential to Rebuild Benicia.
At the same time as mall and chain stores shutter, there will be a huge gap of venues for consumers to patronize. With fewer shopping choices to lure consumers, shoppers will be desperately looking for entertaining and authentic alternatives. Our downtown boasts a rich historical past with authentic architecture that artificial malls can only dream of (and poorly reproduce). Now is the time to reach out and Remind the Bay Area to visit and enjoy a day on the Bay!
Civic leaders, the Chamber, and local business must cooperate and Rebrand Benicia; that is, organize, advertise and market the town. Whether to welcome pioneering innovators or the exploring consumer — Benicia must reach out to both. We must accommodate those looking to open shop and those looking to patronize shops that are open.
This is where you can help! As the pandemic wanes and as you plan family gatherings, encourage friends & family to visit you in Benicia! Walk First Street, visit the parks, wine and dine in the downtown. Treat newcomers to Benicia’s beauty, its history, and its authenticity. By hosting your activities in Benicia, your family and guests will share their experience with more friends on social media and by word-of-mouth. With Benicia in such close proximity to much of the East Bay, you will help Remind Bay Area residents to experience the beauty, activity and diversity of the town we love.