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La Mesa celebrating 100 years with revitalized downtown

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More than 25 new businesses have opened in La Mesa’s downtown area in the last few years, including chef Brian Malarkey’s Gingham (pictured). The influx of new shops and eateries has revitalized the area.

The city of La Mesa will be celebrating its 100-year anniversary early next year, but local officials are focused on the future as well as honoring the past. And that foresight appears to be paying off.

Dozens of new businesses have moved into La Mesa in the last several years, marking a revival of the city's quaint downtown village.

"Any astute business person who serves the public, like a restaurant, can look at a site like La Mesa and see the potential and want to get in on the ground floor, and that's been happening," said La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid.

For the last two years, the city has been working on a long-term vision of how to grow its downtown village, a unique five-block corridor dotted with antique shops, clothing stores, eateries and other locally owned boutiques.

One of the ways the city is trying to restore the village's luster is through a Property Business Improvement District (PBID) along with the infusion of approximately $5 million in infrastructure improvement.

The formation of a PBID will be put to a vote by the downtown's business owners, with support needed from at least 50 percent plus one of the shop owners for approval of the district.

In a Business Property Improvement District, each business gets assessed a fee, or tax, based on their square footage and the size of the shop front. That money goes into a general fund, which is used to make infrastructure improvements, pay a full-time administrator and hire community "ambassadors," who walk the area to provide assistance in maintaining the peace.

The administrator is in charge of marketing the community and holding special events.

If approved, Madrid expects the La Mesa PBID budget to total about $354,000 a year.

"The downtown area and village is the heart and soul of the community," Madrid said. "We're extremely fortunate to have a five-block-long downtown area.

"We have a diamond in the rough."

The city of La Mesa owns nine properties in the village, mostly parking lots, and its assessments could cost $64,000 a year, an amount city officials are more than happy to pay.

"We're willing to put skin in the game," Madrid said. "We're part of the community."

The downtown village has languished for decades with no infrastructure improvements having been made for at least 30 years. In one stark example of how the area's fallen into disrepair, the trees have not been watered since 1990, according to Madrid.

"(The village is) beginning to show the wear and tear," he said.

The city plans on changing that by enhancing the curbs, sidewalks, lighting, landscaping, street furniture and other amenities, if the PBID is approved.

While the infrastructure has crumbled, the city's renewed focus on marketing the village has begun to pay off. In the last three years, more than 25 businesses have opened in La Mesa's downtown village, including restaurants, clothing stores and professional service firms.

One of the signature additions to the village so far has been restaurant Gingham, the brainchild of chef Brian Malarkey.

Malarkey, who also operates the Searsucker and Burlap restaurants in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter and Del Mar, respectively, was sold on La Mesa the minute he saw the downtown village. It reminds him of his childhood hometown of Redmond, Ore.

"It was the building on this cute little street that sold me," Malarkey said. "I'm all for revitalization. I wanted to do affordable cuisine, and the idea of putting a really fun project together for La Mesa [appealed to me]."

Triggering the revitalization was the construction of a new fire station, county library and a new police department headquarters.

Lynn McRea, owner of the accounting firm McRea & Associates who also owns the building it resides in, has been located in downtown La Mesa for eight years.

She said there is still quite a bit of turnover in the area, and the village has an overabundance of professional service firms, like lawyers, accountants and realtors. She is concerned about the future of retail shops in the area.

"[Gingham is] a really positive addition," McRea said. "It's like having an anchor tenant, so that's been wonderful.

"I think the recession is still playing its role. There's still lots of room for improvement."

She is in favor of a PBID and is excited about the prospects it could bring, however.

"It'll add dollars [in cost to businesses] but the benefits received in exchange will be worth it," McRea said. "I feel there's a big value in having a safe and secure environment that's clean."

La Mesa plans to celebrate its centennial in February with "the Party of the Century," Madrid said.

City officials also are planning a legacy project — a kiosk built in the middle of the park between Allison Avenue and La Mesa Boulevard — to mark the occasion.

"It will reflect the contribution of a community," Madrid said.

And be a piece of history for the city's next 100 years.

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