Keeping retail dollars from heading down Highway 49 |

Keeping retail dollars from heading down Highway 49

There's been a lot of discussion recently in western Nevada County about how to keep the retail dollars spent by people like me from leaking out of the county.

A study conducted a couple of years ago concluded that the county loses $200 million annually in retail sales to Auburn, Roseville and other cities in the region, decreasing local tax revenue and presumably the quality of life.

The Auburn area is ratcheting up the pressure to do something about this. Wal-Mart has been cleared to begin construction of a new "superstore" that is expected to open for business next year.

Right behind it is Costco, now slated for a site next to Home Depot. Auburn already has a Best Buy and Target, and there's the constant rumor that Trader Joe's is seeking a suitable site in Grass Valley's neighbor to the south.

One way to stop the bleeding is to bring chain stores to the Grass Valley area that dissuade people from shopping elsewhere, so the city hired Chabin Concepts of Chico last year to survey 600 Grass Valley residents and conduct three focus groups to learn their feeling about western Nevada County's retail environment.

"Unanimously, everybody surveyed said JC Penney and Kmart are not providing the kind of merchandise they want," Aubrey Taylor of Chabin told the city council. Those surveyed said they want to see a Target in the community.

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The wish list also included truly jumbo stores, such as Wal-Mart, Costco and Sam's Club, and smaller retailers like Trader Joe's (everybody wants one), Olive Garden, Ross and Kohl's.

Nobody grabbed a phone and started calling these people, but developer Russell Jeter recently proposed building a 215,000-square-foot shopping center at Dorsey Drive and Highway 49, hopefully populated with some of the stores on Chabin's hit parade. The proposal was not well received in some precincts.

The city has also moved to annex the Berriman Ranch property south of town, presenting the opportunity to develop even more retail space. Meanwhile, Nevada City's retail strategy is to use taxpayer dollars to get the town's ailing courthouse off life support.

But there's more to keeping retail dollars in the county than just having the right mix of stores. Just ask somebody like me, a Lake of the Pines' resident who can spend his money in either Auburn or Grass Valley. The nature of the retail experience also factors into the decision.

One of the experiences that told me we weren't in the Bay Area anymore occurred in 2001 when I ventured into downtown Grass Valley about 5:40 p.m. to buy something. As I got out of my car on Mill Street, it occurred to me that everything but the bars and restaurants was already closed. Where I came from, even the smallest retailer was open until at least 6.

But at least I was able to find a place to park, which isn't always the case when you want to shop in Grass Valley. There aren't a lot of places to park, in part because store employees don't like to walk too far to work.

The biggest issue I have with retailers in Grass Valley and Nevada City is the retail mix — clearly geared for women and tourists. If store personnel don't know you, they assume you're a tourist and this is their only chance to sell you something. That's not the way I shop.

LOP is about five miles closer to Auburn than Grass Valley, but that's not a deal maker for my wife and I. But the road south is better — two lanes each way at 65 mph — and gas is cheaper in Auburn.

A similar highway north of Combie Road won't appear any time soon. As I understand the thinking, the modern equivalent of a Mongol horde will head up Highway 49 if it's widened to two lanes all the way to Grass Valley.

If you like big-name retailers, Auburn offers the better shopping experience. Grass Valley's two "big box" stores are fading retailers that may not be in business much longer. Auburn has covered just about all of the bases. If it can land a Trader Joe's and a store that sells decent men's clothes, shoppers would have practically no reason to go to Roseville.

The food pricing expert in the house informs me that grocery prices are comparable in both towns, but she does like the idea of going down one side of 49 and up the other to make all of her stops. And then there's this novel experience in Auburn: You can buy a new car! Really!

The retail experience is as much about how you're treated as it is about the stores and other amenities that attract you to an area. While we like to see local retailers do well, they also have to earn our business. And if we choose to spend our money in another jurisdiction, be assured we pay plenty in property taxes for the services we use and don't use.

But we still patronize restaurants and cultural events in the Grass Valley-Nevada City Metroplex, and I still get my hair cut in Grass Valley. A good barber is hard to find.

George Boardman lives in Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays in The Union.

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