It would be hard to find someone who knows more than Tal Crump does about Elk Grove’s Old Town, the original city blocks on the eastern end of Elk Grove Boulevard.
Crump’s family has lived in Elk Grove since 1898; his family still runs the lumber mill behind Elk Grove Boulevard near the Union Pacific railroad tracks. The business group he leads meets in the former home of the state’s first free county branch library, in a part of the city established just two years after the discovery of gold.
So when Crump says business is starting to heat up in the Old Town – the strip of Elk Grove Boulevard bookended by Elk Grove-Florin and Waterman roads – chances are he’s onto something.
People are drawn to “the uniqueness of Old Town, the quaintness of it and the affordability,” said Crump, president of the Old Town Foundation, the band of merchants, businesspeople and residents who work and live in the city’s original neighborhoods.
Old Town Elk Grove is positioning itself as something different in a suburb where franchises and national chain restaurants dominate the wide commercial thoroughfares.
“It’s not just going to big franchise restaurants. ... It’s a diverse area with retail, restaurants – we hope to get more of that – and small businesses,” Crump said. “Something’s going on, and people in general are attracted to that.”
Restaurants are the main draw for now. Old Town backers draw inspiration from midtown Sacramento, which organically grew into a dining and entertainment hub that draws people from throughout the region.
“Food is a driver – doing what you can to leverage food and the old neighborhood is a good thing,” said Randy Starbuck, Elk Grove’s economic development director.
Starbuck calls the progress made in Old Town over the last two years “slow but steady.”
The restaurant scene in Old Town Elk Grove has seen some recent additions. An entity called Lola’s Lounge Tapas & Latin Cuisine recently applied for a license to serve alcohol in the historic general store building on Elk Grove Boulevard, which once housed the Elk Grove Brewery & Restaurant.
A new addition to the local La Favorita Taqueria family of restaurants is close to opening on the boulevard, while The Italian Delicatessen & Fine Foods, a spinoff of Old Town’s popular Brickhouse restaurant that opened last fall, has quickly developed a following. A short walk away is another mainstay, the highly regarded Boulevard Bistro. In addition to the restaurants, a collection of antique stores, salons and clothing shops has filled empty storefronts.
All appear to be helping to change Old Town’s once-sleepy reputation, one that some business owners here once thought was irreversible.
“It’s good for us. Old Town is hopefully becoming a shopping area,” said Julie Cassella, whom Old Towners call “Mama” and whose sons Geno and Franco own the deli and the Brickhouse restaurant across the street. “I thought that opportunity might have gone away for Old Town, that that time may have passed. There were some who didn’t even know Old Town existed.”
Lindsey Youdan picked up a lunchtime sandwich at The Italian Delicatessen on a recent Thursday. Here, chubs of salami hang from the ceiling, the deli case is stuffed with hot coppa and sopressata, mortadella and prosciutto.
The Old Town resident lives a few blocks away and she enjoys “the old town atmosphere, the antique shops. I like the restaurants and the night life. It seems like it’s growing up and more people are drawn to it.”
Old Town Elk Grove has gotten help and renewed attention from the city in recent years, including a $6.3 million streetscape and facade improvement project in 2005 and updated architectural, design and sign standards. Planters, brick inlaid crosswalks and historic streetlights are part of the scenery now. The city purchased a 5-acre plot at Elk Grove Boulevard and Railroad Avenue in 2012 for what is now Old Town Plaza, a space for festivals and other events.
“It’s been a huge improvement,” said Angela Perry, president and CEO of the city’s chamber of commerce. “It was rundown, and now it’s a place to be. It’s a jewel of the city and people are finally starting to see it.”
John Lowry has seen Old Town in down times and its recent resurgence as longtime owner of Lowry Music on Elk Grove Boulevard. He remembers what the Old Town renovation promised and says it has mostly delivered, but it’s still a work in progress. The challenge, he said, is drawing customers to his individual business.
“Hope springs eternal with new businesses popping up all the time. Anything that draws traffic to Old Town is a good thing” he said, a bass guitar ready for repair sitting on the counter. “With all the traffic, I thought I’d be inundated with customers,” he mused in his soft Louisiana drawl. “Problem is, they didn’t stop.”
Boosters have started staging events aimed at getting more people to give Old Elk Grove a try. A chili festival in mid-May drew 12,000 people, and food truck operators hold monthly gatherings. These join long-term events such as the winter Dickens Faire.
Late last year, Elk Grove joined cities across the country that have teamed with Portland State University, whose urban experts help cities map out planning, redevelopment, transportation and other solutions. The Oregon school has been working with Elk Grove and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments on ways to attract new business and development to Old Town.
Rancho Cordova and Sacramento County are also among entities across the country working with Portland State, a group that also includes El Paso, Texas; Louisville, Ky.; Portland, Maine; Wichita, Kan.; and Waco, Texas. Portland State is helping El Paso develop a more walkable downtown. Louisville wants to better manage its stormwater. In Rancho Cordova, city planners are teaming with the Oregon campus to create transit-oriented development along Folsom Boulevard.
“They want to have an identity,” Robert Liberty, director of the Portland State program, said of Old Town Elk Grove. He says Old Town has a foundation in place: a collection of historic buildings; walkable streets; frequent transit service, the city’s streetscape spending; and, Liberty said, “people’s interest generally in having a more urban experience.”
Finding ways to capitalize on the corridor’s history and draw business and visitors to Old Town is the next step, Liberty said, in a trend developing nationwide.
“It’s happening all over the country. There’s a big demand for things different,” Liberty said. People want authenticity and character.”
Or, as salon owner Sharon Breault put it: “What are you going to say? ‘I met my husband 50 years ago at a strip mall in Laguna?’ ”
The 100-year-old buildings and turn-of-the-last-century architecture are what drew Breault to Old Town, which she saw as an alternative to the Laguna-area subdivisions that transformed Elk Grove during the past quarter century from a small town to a sprawling suburb of about 160,000 people.
Breault converted what was a city fire station in the heart of Old Town into a salon and spa space. Her True Salon and Spa celebrates its fifth anniversary this month. Today, her stylists work on the same floor where hulking fire engines once docked.
“The historical buildings add a lot,” Breault said during an impromptu tour of her spa. “I couldn’t imagine opening a salon anywhere else. In Laguna, every corner looked the same.”