Mild Wild West
City steps up to calm down Old Sac
By Gary Delsohn
For the first time in several years, some business owners in Old Sacramento—battered by COVID-19, civil unrest and crime—feel hopeful.
The historic district has long suffered an image problem. It had attractions and history, but never the critical mass and appeal to become a must-see attraction.
Excitement was high before the pandemic. An inviting embarcadero was installed. More family-friendly events were planned. The future looked bright in April 2019, after the City Council agreed to invest $47 million to upgrade the Old Sac waterfront, with money leveraged to lure private investment.
Then came the pandemic and civil unrest after the George Floyd murder. Shops and restaurants closed or were barely surviving. A part of Downtown that draws several million visitors a year became a ghost town.
Another blow came last summer when back-to-back shooting incidents, including one caught on video, left two people dead and four injured.
The video went viral on social media. A gunman fires down the embarcadero at an unseen target. Frightened patrons, including a couple with a young child, scurry away.
“Our people didn’t want to come to work. They were scared to dodge bullets, literally,” says Stephanie Miller, owner of Rio City Café on Front Street.
Kevin Fat, whose family owned popular restaurants in Old Sac for more than 40 years and Downtown for 80 years, agreed the shootings and other crimes are devastating.
“With everything that was happening, these past three or four years have been really tough,” he tells me. “And I have had friends and families who usually come Downtown or to Old Sacramento express to me they won’t come down there with their families anymore because they don’t feel safe.”
Worried for years that rowdy nightlife and scant police presence were a recipe for disaster, some merchants sent an angry letter to city officials several weeks before the shootings.
Soon after, Scott Ford, who manages public spaces in Old Sac for the Downtown Partnership, helped Miller and others organize a town hall meeting.
“All the big wigs were there,” Dane Addison, manager of the Delta King, says. “The mayor, police chief, city manager. It seemed to take a room full of freaked out people because of the shootings to finally get the city to acknowledge that some of the stuff we had been saying was legit. We weren’t just a bunch of people complaining because we had nothing better to do.”
With prodding from the Partnership and others, city officials responded. Police patrols increased. Security lighting was added along with money to keep streets and sidewalks cleaner.
Most recently, the city committed $800,000 for the Partnership to hire two nighttime security guards, install decorative lighting and add bollards to make it easier to cordon off streets for events. Last October, the city approved $4.2 million for lighting, security cameras and other improvements.
Just before Thanksgiving, Miller spent the weekend at the Delta King. She walked around at night to see if she felt safe after dark.
“These things have really helped,” she says. “The police officers were present. The lighting was better. It gave me hope. It really has gotten a lot better.”
Miller and the others know a cold weekend in November is not the same as a hot summer night when thousands of young people may crowd the clubs and streets with behavior that turns off other visitors.
“My management team feels more hopeful and safer over the course of the last couple of months,” Ford says. “That doesn’t mean it won’t change when summer comes again, but right now, there is a definite change for the better.”
Ford and the others know they need to get the word out that security has been upgraded. Plans for more festivals and events this spring and summer can re-introduce the district and make people feel comfortable and welcome again, he believes.
“The idea of spending $40 million on the waterfront was great,” he says, “but there are a lot of fundamentals you can take care of with a million here, a few hundred thousand dollars there, that can really be impactful and make things safer for everyone.”
Let’s hope so. Nightlife in Downtown and Old Sac is getting busy again. People are desperate to get out and have fun. It’s popular to bash police these days, but we need more of them, not less, along with some rules and order, for people to feel safe.
Gary Delsohn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.