A year-old collaboration among business owners became the focus of Bakersfield's annual State of the Downtown Breakfast as hundreds of local stakeholders celebrated what many see as a promising approach to promoting safety and security in the city's core.
Speakers touted progress in implementing the program known as Block to Block, in which designated "block captains" meet monthly to share information about the crime, vandalism and homelessness that have put many downtown business owners on edge during the last few years.
Hundreds in attendance at the Bakersfield Downtown Business Association's annual event applauded organizers' efforts in signing up about 70 block captains representing some 500 businesses.
There also was praise for city officials, including Ward 2 Councilman Andrae Gonzales and Mayor Karen Goh, who DBA officials said have been instrumental in helping roll out Block to Block and offering city resources to promote the area's revitalization.
DBA President and CEO Melanie Farmer emphasized the program is only now entering the second year of its five-year plan. Security matters remain to be worked out, she said, but already there has been great progress.
"It was rough getting it started," she said. "We had a lot of things we had to learn."
Farmer also laid out six DBA priorities for the year ahead: cleanliness, safety, fostering a welcoming environment, support for businesses, promotion of local restaurants and shops, and celebration in the form of mixers and regularly scheduled festivals.
DBA Chairman Chris Hall, assistant superintendent of support services for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, said the existing level of participation in Block to Block has been a "huge, huge accomplishment." He called the program, modeled after similar initiatives elsewhere, "a very effective program."
Probably the emotional climax of the morning — apart from the loud applause Gonzales elicited by announcing the 24th Street widening project would be finished this summer — was a speech by Block to Block chairwoman Dixie Brewer, owner of 19th Street consignment and antique store In Your Wildest Dreams.
Brewer told the audience how, during the 17 years the shop was located on 18th Street near the Padre Hotel, she experienced very few incidents of theft or vandalism. That changed, she said, when two years ago she moved the business to the city's antique district.
Soon after the move the building was set on fire, tools were stolen and windows were broken.
"We put the windows together. They were broken again," she said, adding that this happened four times.
Finally at the end of her rope, she spoke with Farmer about her troubles and learned the DBA was looking to launch Block to Block.
Brewer said she and others active within the program quickly learned from city officials there were limits to what could be done to address problematic vagrants. But the work of Farmer and others has convinced her the program is a worthy investment of time and effort.
"It is only the beginning, people," she said. "It's going to take all of us to do it."
Gonzales, taking his turn at the podium inside Westchester Hall on F Street, called for continued work and investment.
He noted recent highlights — Fresno tech hub Bitwise Industries is expanding to downtown Bakersfield, city government is paying for new pedestrian lighting in the area and a market-rate townhome project called The Cue is expected to begin construction soon at 18th and Q streets.
He did not minimize the need to continue focusing on homelessness but rather projected optimism.
"Downtown is still where it's at," he said, "and that's the story we need to tell."