A little over a decade ago, Folsom’s historic district consisted largely of a huge parking lot, a fading antiques row and a hodgepodge of retail and restaurant offerings.
A 2006 retail study recommended that the fast-growing city establish an entertainment district there, observing that “in light of the education and income level of the area, arts and entertainment are notably underdeveloped.”
Since then, the city has spent millions on the district, turning the former Southern Pacific depot grounds into a civic plaza with an amphitheater and a railroad turntable. The city also has built a parking garage and made street and facade improvements.
City leaders say the renewed district has successfully attracted more traffic and sales, though its growing nightlife scene has drawn neighborhood complaints.
The work was largely completed in 2011, and despite feeling the effects of the recession, more than 20 businesses have since located in Historic Folsom Station, an area anchored by Sutter Street and perched above the American River. The area now offers a broader range of retail, including specialty shops such as an olive oil store, salons and spas.
In 2012, the first year after most of the improvements were done, sales tax revenue increased 11 percent over the year before. City Manager Evert Palmer says the improvement in the economy as well as the redevelopment work helped raise interest in the area.
Developer Jeremy Bernau expects to begin construction this year on two buildings across the street from the Sutter Court and Whiskey Row Lofts he built in 2007. The Granite House will feature retail stores and lofts. The Roundhouse Restaurant will offer two floors of indoor and outdoor dining when they’re built in the district’s plaza. He expects to finish both next year.
Bernau plans to follow those up with two more residential and retail projects on Sutter Street. His plans reflect optimism that Folsom’s revitalized downtown will continue to see increases in visitors and residents.
“Folsom residents consider the plaza to be their living room,” Bernau said.
The city’s redevelopment work is almost complete, with only an amphitheater cover and some landscaping and lighting work left in the plaza.
Residents from the region are increasingly attending events, such as an antique show, a classic car display and an ice skating rink that circles the train turntable, according to the Folsom Historic District Association. Year-round entertainment options have increased, too, including the Sutter Street Theater, which the chamber of commerce recruited to locate there.
“We hoped to attract a mix of businesses,” said Mayor Kerri Howell. “It’s working quite well.”
Connie Mockenhaupt, CEO and artistic director of Sutter Street Theater, said her business has profited from increased interest in the district after the revitalization work was done. The theater stages musicals and comedies, as well as a series of shows directed at families.
The city bought the depot grounds from Southern Pacific in 1990, and its revitalization efforts build on the district’s railroading past, featuring the historic turntable as its centerpiece. The depot grounds were the site of the first passenger railroad service west of the Mississippi River, linking Sacramento and Folsom in 1856. That rail tradition continued when Regional Transit extended its light-rail service to Folsom in 2005.
As Folsom’s downtown has become more popular, the city has grappled with how to control the growth in visitors, especially at night. The district is bordered by decades-old homes where residents have complained about noise and other disruptions.
Over a 29-month period ending last May, Folsom officials have responded to reports of assault, open containers of alcohol, public urination, driving under the influence and other instances of drunken and disorderly conduct in the historic district, according to a city staff report. Residents have also complained that patrons are parking on residential streets rather than in the new parking garage.
In Historic Folsom Station, 25 restaurants and bars serve alcohol, according to the city. But most of the problems have taken place at a handful of establishments that offer late-night entertainment, officials said.
The City Council last week created a “Sutter Street Entertainment District” to place restrictions on bars and nightclubs. Such businesses must stop offering entertainment acts by 11 p.m. on Sunday through Tuesday and by midnight on Wednesday. On Thursday through Saturday, as well as holidays such as New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day, they can provide entertainment until 2 a.m.
The city will require businesses to post signs telling patrons that free parking is available in certain lots and the new city garage, hoping to reduce traffic on residential streets.
“We are just responding to complaints by neighbors,” said Vice Mayor Jeff Starsky, his voice rising at the council meeting in response to anger from business owners. “There are people telling me that they have naked people on the porch because they’re drunk.”
Some business owners say the changes will hurt the bottom line. Young people often go out at 10 p.m. and won’t bother with a place that stops entertainment an hour later, said Robert Holderness, an attorney representing Powerhouse Pub, at a council meeting in December.
Then there are people like Bernau, who say that the success of the district depends on striking a balance.
“We want residents to live down here – people who want to live somewhere that’s lively, but not loud,” he said.