As rents rise in central Bakersfield and momentum moves eastward, a gallery and events business credited as being a catalyst for downtown's arts district is planning a half-mile move to the area known as Eastchester.
Metro Galleries, operated at 1604 19th St. for more than a decade by businessman Don Martin, will close and reopen in about three months at 910 18th St., across from Cafe Smitten. Martin confirmed the plan Monday but declined to comment on the reasons behind it.
Downtown interests largely welcomed the move as potentially expanding the area's revitalization, even as some worry Martin will take some foot traffic with him.
The head of the city's arts council compared Metro Galleries' transition to a kind of "sharing the wealth" situation, in that Martin's presence may lend new energy to an area showing signs of rebirth. But he added it won't be easy.
"Chester is a hard line to cross," said David Gordon, executive director of the nonprofit Arts Council of Kern, referring to the plan to move seven blocks east. He nevertheless hopes Martin's cultural enthusiasm will "ripple out" from the new location.
The move is a win for Eastchester, a part of town that in the past few years has seen a series of businesses open following the development of 44 market-rate apartments on 1.34 acres bordered by 17th and 18th and N and O streets.
"It’s a lesson in overlooked opportunity in our downtown," stated Austin Smith, co-owner of Sage Equities, which developed and manages the residential project, dubbed 17th Place Townhomes. "For decades, this pocket right in our city center was largely forgotten. And now we have new businesses popping up every time we look around. Metro Galleries will make it even more lively." Smith acted as broker on Metro Galleries' 18th Street lease, representing tenant and landlord. Sage also developed Cafe Smitten.
For all its new business and residential momentum, crime in Eastchester remains a challenge.
Dale Oprandy, executive director of Inclusion Films at 19th and O streets, around the corner from the gallery's future home, said thefts at businesses in the neighborhood have become more frequent lately. He recently installed security bars and is gathering signatures on a petition asking for more police attention to the area.
"It’s really a concern for many of us down here," Oprandy said. "Should we really be here?”
Councilman Andrae Gonzales, whose district includes both locations, sees Eastchester as increasingly attractive because of its available commercial space, the new townhomes and plans for additional housing.
He and others praised Metro Galleries as a kind of pioneering business that not only helped make a success of the First Friday art walk, but also persuaded city residents to take a chance on an area that has since lured upscale businesses like the Padre Hotel and The Mark restaurant.
"He (Martin) saw something in downtown long before many of us were even on the scene," Gonzales said. "He made a significant investment and that investment has paid off, not just for him but for the area as a whole.”
Metro Galleries' landlord, Edith Gibson, said rents have risen over the years at the Hay Building where Metro Galleries exists now, but that her impression was that Martin was looking for a smaller space. She said she has already heard from various potential replacement tenants, including breweries, restaurants and a phone store.
Jake Kim, owner of Jin Sushi next to Metro Galleries, said he was sad to hear the gallery will move, because of all the people it attracted.
Gaby Gonzalez, manager of the Toss It restaurant around the corner, expressed a similar concern, saying, "as a business ... I'm sort of sad to see it go."
There was no shortage of enthusiasm, however, for the continuing growth of a part of downtown also known as Mill Creek. Several businesses have moved there in recent years, each contributing to an energy that is "spreading like the pebble in the pond,” said Cathy Butler, executive director of the nonprofit Downtown Bakersfield Development Corp.
The move can even be seen as pushing the bounds of downtown's arts district, said Iva Cross Fendrick, president of the Bakersfield Art Association Art Center, located across 19th Street from Metro Galleries.
Of course Martin's move is a loss, she admitted, "but maybe another gallery will open" in its place, she said.
John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.