Downtown Bakersfield is finally happening.
Independent investors lured by increasing foot traffic and higher-end clientele are opening restaurants, stores and galleries, confident that the area's stigma is on the decline and recent success will prove contagious.
"You can just see the rejuvenation that's going on," said Al Mendez, manager of Ice House Framing & Gallery, which moved to 19th and Eye streets this month from its former home near Chester Avenue and 34th Street, "the restaurants that are opening up. ... All you have to do is just walk downtown on a Friday, Saturday evening."
Like other downtowns that began to flourish around the country in the late 1990s, the city's historic center is undergoing a sort of gentrification led by art, bars and entertainment. Its strength, supporters say, lies in diversity: after-work professionals mixing with bohemian youth and out-of-towners.
It hasn't happened overnight. City government has for years partnered with business owners to polish the area's image with grants, loans and other subsidies. Their work area remains a work in progress, judging by the numerous empty storefronts between the arts and entertainment district around Eye and the area around Mill Creek further east, another focus of recent investment.
But in surprising nooks, investors are betting that momentum is suddenly building and the area is on the verge of something bigger.
Ro Fernandez, general manager of The Mark, a new upscale restaurant on 19th by H Street, said people who used to avoid the area are now giving downtown a chance. They're finding it's a "one-stop shop" for coffee, dining, drinks and entertainment.
Better yet, he said, locals are finding they don't need to go to Los Angeles for something new and different.
"We're just as good as they are," he said. "And we're supporting local business."
One of the more charismatic newcomers is Seamus Finn-chandler whose business, Sustenance 101, on Eye just north of 18th Street, is a kind of offbeat dinner club/cooking studio like one he owned in San Luis Obispo.
To Finn-chandler, a well-traveled Buddhist insistent on incorporating reclaimed materials in his brick-walled kitchen and dining space, downtown has a hip vibe not unlike that of Santa Barbara or Austin, Texas.
"I can't imagine being in Bakersfield and being any other place but downtown," he said.
Any discussion of the area's resurgence includes some mention of the Padre Hotel or the monthly First Friday art walks. Both have attracted new visitors from across the city, thereby increasing the average income of downtown shoppers and diners.
"With all the other downtown redevelopment that's going on -- the Padre, The Mark, On the Rocks (a new bar and grill on 18th Street near Eye) -- everybody's trying to go with a little higher-income clientele. That's the reason I'm doing it," said Walter Walston, co-owner with his wife of Riley's on 19th Street near Eye. The couple is at work expanding and converting the bar they took over in 2010; they plan to rebrand it, maybe under the name Prohibition.
The new visitors come as a "bonus" to downtown restaurateur Shawna Haddad Byers, owner of Muertos Kitchen & Lounge on Wall Street. She moved there from her former restaurant/rock music venue Fishlips half a block south just west of Chester Avenue, where On the Rocks is now.
Diversity, she said, is a big factor in the area's success.
"The reason there's so many of us is, we're all different," she said.
"Everybody's got their own point of view, and it's working."
That very energy attracted Sheila Heninger, owner of Frosting Ink, a cupcake and pastry shop in the process of moving to Eye just north of 19th from a quieter spot a few blocks to the west. Her hope is that visitors will want a little dessert to go with their stroll.
"The foot traffic, I think, is a big bonus," she said.
A notable development amid all the recent investment has taken place at the Hay Building along Eye between 19th and 20th streets. Already home to one of First Friday's biggest success stories, Metro Galleries, the building recently opened to 10 third-floor loft residents -- just the sort of 24-hour denizens populating other revitalized downtown areas.
Metro Galleries owner Don Martin is busy expanding into a second, adjacent art space, as well as a wine bar and kitchen to be shared with Frosting Ink. He said he hopes the improvements will have a positive, ripple effect in the area, as the Padre's opening did in 2010.
His landlord, Hay Building co-owner Eydie Gibson, is just happy to see her 2005 real estate investment finally come to fruition.
She said city staff recently confided to her that, at the time, they considered her decision to buy the building "crazy." (This impression didn't stop the city's redevelopment agency from giving her a $612,000 grant to help with the loft construction work; this assistance came with an income cap on people she can rent to.)
Now things are looking up, and no one's more relieved than she is.
"It's fun" watching her hard work and investment develop, Gibson said. "It really, to me, is fun."