By Deb Murphy
Jake Rasmuson of Bishop Real Estate had the simple answer to Bishop’s downtown issues, reminiscent of “Field of Dreams”. “It’s the aesthetics. If downtown looks vibrant, people will come.”
But the weightier question at last Friday’s workshop with Bishop Council members, staff, realtors and community members was “how do you get to vibrant.”
Stan Smith of Pleasant Valley Associates urged the Counsel to hold the session with realtors when the City started talking about vacancy ordinances. The two-hour session was lively, but opened up at least one can of worms—what’s going to happen if or when Inyo County vacates its Bishop offices and moves to a new County building north of town. Randi Pritchard of Eastern Sierra Realty anticipated that move would open up 40 more vacancies.
Add that to the existing and highly-visible vacancies and you’ve got a real problem.
Both Mayor Karen Schwartz and City Planner Elaine Kabala defined the session as an initial conversation. By e-mail Kabala added “We heard support for more flexible, mixed-use zoning and concerns regarding the appearance of downtown. While participants were skeptical of the value of a registry for vacant buildings, there was support for a mechanism to inform potential entrepreneurs on what is available for rent and what improvements need to be made.”
Kabala explained that registries are a common tool for other cities pursuing economic development. “A registry doesn’t need to come with fines or fees,” she said.
The same skepticism applied to a vacancy ordinance. Smith’s solution was to simply go after un-permitted uses of some of the vacant storefronts. Another fix would be a re-zone to avoid Conditional Use Permits that could result in a hodge-podge of uses.
There was strong support for a mixed-use that would include conversion of some or parts of commercial buildings into residential. “If we have residential zoning downtown, that could push the demand part of the supply and demand equation,” noted Pritchard.
The City is pursuing grant funding for a consultant to work toward a mixed-use zoning change, but that could take up to two years.
Façade improvement and low interest rates for building infrastructure improvements have been on the table through a number of other community workshops.
One long shot are Opportunity Zones, part of the current federal tax bill, that remove capital gains tax when the profits are put into investments in those Zones. Both Bishop and Lone Pine have been identified as Opportunity Zones.
OK, there weren’t any decisions or magic wands, but the conversation was kicked into high gear.