Michael Ault, executive director of Sacramento’s Downtown Partnership, has been working to put more life into the city’s core for 25 years. He has experienced his share of economic gyrations.
California’s past budget crises, “Furlough Fridays” for state workers, the national housing crash that sparked the last recession and other big setbacks were painful, but largely overcome. So for the even-tempered advocate, last January’s “State of Downtown 2020” event at the Hyatt Regency was reason to celebrate.
Following a spirited 20-minute talk showcasing progress on waterfront development, six hotels, a couple thousand residential units, the railyards, Major League Soccer, the DoCo district and more, Michael Ault ended the annual update with a slick 90-second marketing video.
Sure, there were still problems that included the city’s growing homeless population, but the video featured happy people shopping, cheering at Kings games, enjoying concerts, rallies and festivals. Sacramento was relishing its hard-earned and enviable run of good fortune.
Then it stopped. All at once.
With the all-consuming public health crisis and several nights of damage that distracted attention from large, peaceful protests against police brutality and racism, the oxygen leaked out of the city’s core.
“When news comes that state employees have flexibility to potentially work at home through the end of the calendar year, and a lot of the big vertical high-rise buildings don’t see themselves at 80 percent capacity until the fall, that’s a challenge to us and it’s a challenge to the customer base,” Ault says.
We still don’t know the impact from the shutdowns. Some restaurants and small businesses have closed and will not come back. Large public gatherings, so integral to a successful Downtown, are not on anyone’s horizon, although the weekly farmers market has returned to Capitol Mall, at least for now. Big losses are still being counted, made worse when Downtown began a gradual reopening in June, only to retract when the virus spiked.
On the plus side, several hotel projects are still moving forward. A Major League Soccer team and stadium in the railyards remain on track, as does the Kaiser medical complex that will help anchor the former industrial site.
Ground was broken in late June on an anticipated mixed-use project at 10th and J streets. The Convention Center expansion is well underway and proceeding.
“You could argue that was fortunate timing,” Ault says. “There probably wouldn’t have been a lot of conventions had it been open, so using this down time has been a good thing.”
Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s ambitious vision for the Old Sacramento waterfront is bound to slow. No one knows how much smaller the Downtown workforce that drives so much of the city’s economy will be.
“There are some questions about what that workforce will look like in the future,” Ault says. “The transition that people had of working at home several months—will some of that continue long term? How do offices space themselves out? Hopefully, we’ll have a vaccine that allows us to return.”
But Michael Ault knows Downtown’s recovery will not happen by itself. As Emilie Cameron, the partnership’s communications director notes, “It’s going to take significant resources to keep some of these businesses going. A lot of these businesses are going into significant debt right now to keep their doors open and to make sure they are still here when we get back to, quote unquote, normal.”
As difficult as it has been for Michael Ault, Emilie Cameron and the Downtown Partnership’s 50 employees to watch the core suffer, the personal despair they see among small business owners is more painful.
“This has been my life, the work that we do down here, and we take the work very personally,” Ault says. “We know many of these businesses. We know their families. We know their owners. Seeing the impacts of what may very well be the inability for some of these folks to come back fully and kind of catch this next wave is genuine and we’re concerned about it.
“Are we taking this hard, personally? Yeah, absolutely we are. We’ve said many times to the staff—this is really our time. This organization was created back in the (Mayor) Joe Serna days of being an organization whose sole focus was to drive the Downtown agenda, to be a location for economic development, for investment, where the region’s best food and entertainment and social opportunities are.
“You look at what clearly has been a step backwards for us, but we’re still optimistic about the future.”
Optimism, hard work, creativity and commitment have been hallmarks of the Downtown Partnership and Michael Ault’s leadership. All that and some luck and patience will be needed to get the city’s core back on track.
Gary Delsohn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.