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Casey Christie / The Californian

Workers are busy Thursday morning putting up a new sign on the recently re-opened, historic Padre Hotel in downtown Bakersfield.

The slow, sometimes painful reincarnation of downtown Bakersfield's business district as the center of the city's cultural, artistic and entertainment life is far from over.

But speakers at Thursday's "State of the Downtown" breakfast said the city's heart is on the verge of success that has eluded it for decades.

The Downtown Business and Property Owners Association hosted the breakfast at the newly reborn Padre Hotel, the fortress from which former hotel owner Milton Miller protested the decline of downtown Bakersfield in the 1950s and 60s.

Bob Bell, the DBA's second-term president, said the Padre's reopening -- and other downtown victories large and small -- have brought the fight against decades of neglect to a critical turning point.

"There are people in this room today who are not 100 percent into downtown," he said.

But the skeptics are being forced to reconsider their perception of downtown and consider if it might be worth investing their time and money, Bell said. He believes smart business people, who know what it takes to build a business from scratch and have the resources to see a fledgling venture through several years of losses, will capitalize on the opportunities that exist downtown.

"We are right on the threshold of that," Bell said.

Downtown is looking for businesses willing to look beyond their own financial front porch and become part of the downtown business community, he said. They need to work with the police to control crime, connect with other businesses and focus on bringing more people downtown.

"There is a new energy with the Padre Hotel and Mill Creek," said Cathy Butler, the undaunted believer who has led the DBA's efforts for 35 years.

She called the Padre a cornerstone of the downtown arts district and enthused about the massive response to the building's rebirth during the First Friday art evening at the beginning of February.

"I've never seen so much traffic downtown," she said. "All the restaurants were full."

The three keynote speakers at the breakfast -- Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Williamson, Bakersfield Economic Development Director Donna Kunz and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield -- talked about what they believe downtown needs to succeed.

Williamson said his police force is committed to the revitalization of downtown. But his officers can't do it alone.

Officers on the downtown beat need help from business owners, he said. And owners have to take responsibility for changing the way they operate if their business is attracting the kind of gang patronage that has resulted in high-profile homicides at downtown bars.

Williamson said police are in the process of installing cameras downtown that will allow crimes to be seen from a laptop computer at police headquarters and officers to respond quickly to situations.

"We want businesses to thrive. We want patrons to enjoy what's going on downtown," Williamson said.

Bell said making downtown safe is critical to rebuilding the area.

The DBA, he said, will bring forward a plan to have business owners pay into a fund to provide private security officers downtown.

They will start with an area bounded by 18th and 21st streets between F and L streets, he said.

Kunz rattled off a laundry list of million-dollar investments made or brokered by the city in downtown Bakersfield -- including the Mill Creek walking path and urban creek, the ice and aquatics center, the downtown cottages near Central Park and retail, restaurants and homes along California Avenue near the new Maya Cinemas.

But she warned that there is a large amount of new work to do in a tough economy that continues to challenge downtown business owners. Two downtown eateries have already closed this year and the economy played a part in both closures.

"We still need to keep this momentum going," Kunz said. "It's going to be tough to keep store-fronts open. The city will work to keep businesses alive."

McCarthy pitched cleanup at the end of the breakfast, saying work to bring the new federal courthouse downtown and link downtown to west Bakersfield with major freeway routes will help Bakersfield build a higher quality of life and a vibrant downtown.

Butler cheered the energy building downtown.

"After 35 years everybody is working together," she said.