Carmichael has never been a restaurant hot spot. The section of Fair Oaks Boulevard that serves as the community’s Main Street offers a smattering of fast food, Mexican, and pizza – fare you can find anywhere.
That is about to change. A developer and a handful of restaurateurs are in the final stages of turning a failed strip mall on Fair Oaks into a cluster of restaurants connected under one roof, similar in concept to Napa’s Oxbow Market and the Ferry Building in San Francisco.
It’s to be called Milagro Centre, using the Spanish word for “miracle.” County planners and residents hope the restaurant hub will bring some revitalization magic to Carmichael, a suburb that once was the place to live in the region, but has been on the decline for decades.
“We wanted to create a hub for people to gather to have fun and not have to go downtown or to other areas,” said Allan Davis, a Carmichael resident who launched the Milagro project several years ago with his late wife, Nancy. “We’re hoping to be a catalyst for the neighborhood, to get it going.”
His group has put $10 million into the property and slowly worked through permitting hurdles.
“It’s a huge risk, but we thought it would be fun,” Davis said.
While construction has been a struggle, Davis said his development team has had little trouble wooing some of downtown Sacramento’s most dynamic food entrepreneurs to give Carmichael a try.
“We didn’t have to do a lot of recruiting. We were full almost right away,” he said.
The concept is one of a large open hall, partitioned into restaurants and some retail, with dining areas spilling onto patios.
Ernesto Delgado, owner of Tequila Museo Mayahuel restaurant near the state Capitol, will open Mesa Mercado, a restaurant, tequila bar and taco stand. He also will team with the owners of Broderick Roadhouse on a “farm to fork” themed market.
Billy Ngo will bring his new Fish Face Poke Bar concept. River City Brewing Co., which shut its doors in Downtown Plaza a year ago, will reopen in a corner of Milagro.
Broderick Roadhouse’s Chris Jarosz continues the expansion of his culinary empire with a restaurant called The Patriot. He also will partner in building an event venue at Milagro that is to include a test kitchen where chefs can put on shows, teach cooking and hold competitions.
Insight Coffee Co. will open an outlet. Milagro also will have a dessert and wine bar, along with a Chinese restaurant. The Carmichael Chamber of Commerce will join in, opening a concierge desk.
“This is certainly going be a destination place for anybody who’s ‘foodie’-oriented,” said River City Brewing co-owner Steve Cuneo, a Carmichael resident.
Jarosz said the restaurateurs see it as a joint venture.
“Ernesto recruited me. I recruited Billy. I had meeting with the Fish Face people the other day, talking about how do we cross-pollinate.”
That cooperation reduces the risk a restaurant would face if it moved on its own to Fair Oaks Boulevard, Delgado said.
“I never thought I’d be going out to Carmichael, ever; I’m a downtown kind of restaurateur,” Delgado said. “But when I saw the plans, I like the Oxbow in Napa and I’m a big fan of the Ferry Building. It’s a concept that is elegant yet casual, so it’s for everyone, it’s for the family.”
Sacramento County officials say they are pleased to see the private sector investing in Carmichael, bringing services and some jobs. Carmichael, like many suburbs built post-World War II, has been on a slow decline for decades, hastened recently by the recession. Property values suffered in many of its neighborhoods. Commercial centers have boarded up buildings. Homelessness is on the rise. Parks lack money for improvements.
As the economy rebounds, the inner-ring suburbs must find ways to compete to keep affluent residents from moving to newer subdivisions, as well as to attract young buyers who can help rejuvenate the area. Carmichael residents say their community still has its distinctive charm, including large lots, a solid if aging housing stock, mature tree canopies, rolling hills, good schools and easy access to the American River Parkway.
One thing it doesn’t have are many new restaurants, like downtown Sacramento or Roseville. Davis, the developer, said he and his late wife, a member of the Benvenuti development family, would look at each other several nights a week and say: “Let’s go to dinner. But where?”
Several years ago, they decided to put an end to that question and have chipped away at it since then. It’s uncertain when Milagro will open. Several dozen construction workers are at the task. Davis said he’s hoping a few restaurants will open by the end of this month or in January. Jarosz, of Broderick Roadhouse, however, said he is eyeing March.
County officials, for their part, have been trying to smooth the way. They say they see Milagro as the kind of densely packed catalyst project that might attract other new business to Carmichael’s commercial area.
“You are trying to create a focal point for people to identify with,” said Leighann Moffitt, the county planning chief.
The idea of restaurants as an economic development tool is not new. Eating out has become a regular part of lifestyles for singles and for families, across age groups in the United States, said Rachel MacCleery, who runs the Building Healthy Places Initiative for the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.
As Internet shopping puts a dent in traditional retail stores that used to draw people to downtowns and suburban commercial corridors, “restaurants and food have become more important, even out of proportion. Food is the new retail, they say.”
But planners and economic-development managers say old commercial corridors such as Fair Oaks Boulevard will need much more than a cluster of successful restaurants to regain vibrancy.
“Food can be an economic generator, but it is not the only thing,” said Allen Folks, a Sacramento-based urban designer and planner. “You need housing close by so that people can walk” to stores, jobs and entertainment. Businesses go where the people are.
The Sacramento Area Council of Governments has been pushing the idea of helping the region’s old suburbs by redeveloping strip malls into a combination of stores, offices, restaurants and housing units, bunched in a way that brings life and walkability to the street.
The county has been at work setting the stage for that possibility in recent years by building sidewalks, bike lanes, improved bus stops, and by adding palm trees and hiding unsightly power lines underground. The goal, county planners say, is to give the boulevard a Main Street feel. It is a huge philosophical change from a decade ago, when county officials were talking about turning Fair Oaks Boulevard into a six-lane road to help speed cars through the area.
Some Carmichael business leaders, including Milagro developer Davis, hope to take the next step by creating a self-taxing business-improvement district to spruce up the area further in hopes of showing potential investors the community can make a comeback.
Linda Melody of the Carmichael Chamber of Commerce said the money could be spent on basics.
“Top of the list would be safety and security,” said “Some landscaping. Picking up trash. It could be marketing the corridor. When you clean up an area, it makes it more desirable for other businesses, and keeps your property values from going down.”
Meanwhile, the wait continues for Milagro to open. Longtime Carmichael resident Cindy Storelli said she and friends are excited, but concerned too.
“We have all been talking about how we need to support it and give them the business so others will see them being successful, and hopefully it will bring businesses back to Carmichael,” she said.
Anne Berner, co-president of the Carmichael Creek Neighborhood Association, is a retiree whose children have moved to downtown and midtown Sacramento. She has thought at times of moving there herself to be nearer the action. But she’s seen the lineup of restaurants planned for Milagro and it has her salivating, especially the gelato place.
“I like ice cream,” she said. “Now, if my hair cutter would move out here, I’d be all set.”