Logistics and signage emerged as two of the main stumbling blocks to business success in Escalon, with the comments coming during a Friday, Feb. 22 Business Summit hosted by the city.
With all Escalon City Council members in attendance, and representation from a wide cross section of local businesses, the goal was to share ideas on what works and what doesn't.
"I think what the issue (for business) is," noted councilman Danny Fox, "is do I set up on 120 to take advantage of the traffic and not worry about the local residents and do I go off 120 and focus on the population of 7,300?"
More money is there to be made by drawing in the pass-through traffic, business people agreed, but there has to be a balance to meet the needs of people living in the community as well. While most of the pass through traffic stays on the highway, Chamber of Commerce President Pat Brown said that isn't necessarily their fault.
"There's no signage to say that we have a downtown," she pointed out. "That would be a benefit to the businesses filling in (downtown)."
The Main Street corridor offers several shops, but doesn't get much of the tourist trade, which stays primarily on the highway. Brown suggested some signage to inform motorists of downtown destinations -from restaurants to antique stores to clothing shops - could benefit the community as a whole by capturing more dollars. Lions Club member John Salvin said the group is always looking for more service projects, and they would be willing to work with the city on developing some signage to promote the local businesses.
Councilman Robert Swift raised the question whether signage along Highway 120, a state highway, would have to go through Caltrans. City Manager John Abrew was also questioned regarding the city's sign ordinance and said they do have one, but they don't always enforce it.
"If it impedes sight lines, you will be asked to move it," Abrew said of signs advertising business. They can't block pedestrian access, he added, and signs for a business need to be in front of that business, as opposed to being in front of a competitor's location.
"We don't want to impede your business," Abrew said.
Other options for helping bring business to town include working with the San Joaquin Partnership, although funds there are also available to other communities within the county and the competition is tough.
Some at the round table style discussion at the Community Center urged finding businesses that would bring a new and fresh product to the city, not the same as already exists. Abrew confirmed interest from a pizza chain in the community, with those attending noting that there are already plenty of pizza options.
When asked what the advantages of living and working in Escalon are, a couple of answers came quickly: Low crime and less competition.
Property owners with empty storefronts were encouraged to lower rents to get a business in the spot and one attendee noted that in nearby Turlock, there are stores with everything you could need or want within roughly a mile radius.
"They did it with Big Box stores," Fox said, noting that the council has stayed away from that approach.
Mayor Ed Alves suggested a small hotel might be a draw.
"Maybe 30 units, not a large one," Alves said. "You could expand it if it took off."
Fox added that taking some risks has paid off in the past, such as the mini mart by the railroad tracks on 120 headed west out of town and the 'Boat Country' business formed by Jack Rose years ago that has continued to flourish.
"We don't sell big in Escalon, that's not what we're about," Alves said of seeking stable, small business and industry. "We want to maintain the quality of life but survive economically."
Among the local businesses with representatives at the summit were Hogan Manufacturing, Gnekow Family Winery, Vineyard Pharmacy, Eckert Cold Storage, Bavaro Farming, Strand's Ace Hardware and more.
The Friday session, which lasted about roughly 90 minutes and included lunch for all participants, is likely the first of such 'summits' designed to get the community together as a whole to find ways to thrive in a continued tough economy. One businessman pointed to the Circle K in Farmington - at the intersection of Highway 4 and Escalon-Bellota Road - as a "gold nugget" and said Escalon should find something similar that will be a year-round draw along the 120 corridor.
Information about the Enterprise Zone and how it can aid local businesses was offered, and business owners were encouraged to get in contact with the Small Business Development Center offered through San Joaquin Delta College to tap into additional resources.
"There are a lot of good suggestions," Abrew told the crowd as they continued the give and take discussion. "We (council and staff) want to be like a sponge to take it all in.
"Stay tuned, we will get a game plan together."