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Biz Board's Battle Plan Moves Ahead

Upstart panel looks to stimulate business community with innovative marketing campaigns, parking overhauls and planning code tweaks. Is it working?

Stimulating local business has long been debate du jour in downtown Mill Valley. But after at least eight years of stagnant taxable sales, according to an October 2009 report by the city's Business Task Force, City Hall and business leaders are looking to beat back a sluggish economy and coerce residents away from the parking-aplenty pastures of nearby shopping malls.

To do that, they've turned to the Business Advisory Board (BAB), the nine-month-old panel tasked with four main goals this year: to launch a business-friendly marketing campaign, address contentious parking issues, modernize the city's planning code and keep Mill Valley's economic vitality a priority for the city.

"Success to us is that residents and local visitors spend more money and time in Mill Valley and businesses have a positive experience dealing with the city," said Paula Reynolds, chair of the board. "Having a business advisory board allows ourselves to ask what it is we want to be and what do we want to allow."

The board has clinched a few small victories already. Armed with $35,000 in seed money, the board implemented the city's first "guerilla marketing" campaign. In addition to paying for a part-time marketing project manager, the money created the Dipsea Deals, which involved more than 50 local businesses within both city and county limits in a discount promotion in honor of Mill Valley's annual foot race. More than 7,000 discount cards were distributed to residents for use during the month of June.

"We had a great response," Reynolds said. "It's important to shop local. Our businesses are hurting and we can do our part."

Next up is a new parking pilot program that has been given the green light by the City Council and will roll out in July. For $30 a year, the Resident Sticker Vehicle Program (RSVP) will allow residents to park for up to two hours for free in any metered spot downtown. The hope is that this will attract those residents who reason that it's easier to park at a shopping center for free than go downtown and feed a meter.

"We really want it to be successful so that people come down and shop downtown more frequently," says City Councilman Garry Lion, a former president of the Chamber of Commerce who campaigned for his council seat in support of businesses. The trick, he added, is keeping the RSVP revenue-positive for the city.

"Selling the permits is a money-loser for the city," he said. To compensate, the council has thrown its weight behind a plan to increase meter rates from 50 cents per hour to 75 cents per hour as of Aug. 1, and to expand meter use to Saturday and Sunday.

While considerable effort is going into bringing residents into Mill Valley stores, there are also more nuts-and-bolts issues that BAB is trying to address, namely updating the city's zoning code, hopefully by the end of the year.

"The code as it exists right now is sort of one-size-fits-all," says Mike Moore, the city's director of planning and building. "The trend in zoning right now is instead of having pages and pages of different uses, you'd have something that is much more of a general category. In that way, you cover a much broader range of uses."

Mill Valley Swirl, a frozen yogurt shop that opened a few months ago at 417 Miller Ave., is a potential beneficiary of such a change.

Since the shopping area was zoned neighborhood-commercial, it was easier for the shop to open as a retail store, without the benefit of tables and chairs for its customers. When the owners later decided to install furniture, however, it took on the role of a restaurant, triggering a conditional use hearing, which they eventually won. Swirl was in limbo for weeks, but owner Jeff Shine says his experience with the city has been "fantastic" to date.

While stores such as Tamalpais General Store and Glow Girl have closed, others like Mili clothing store and Summer House home decor have expanded, and several new businesses have popped up in recent months..

"When the economy is in a down slump, it's actually a good time to start a small business," says Kristen House, owner of ToyHouse, which opened June 10 at the Tamalpais Commons at 515 Miller Ave. "I think Mill Valley really welcomes and embraces the mom-and-pop store."

Another new business, Beth's Fine Desserts, is expected to open at 34 Miller Ave., adjacent to Lytton Square.

It's this sense of optimism that the Business Advisory Board is hoping to promote throughout the city, along with support from city officials and the Chamber of Commerce.

"Those of us who worked with the city to create the first task force, that whole collaboration is what resulted in the BAB being created," says chamber president Kathy Severson. "This partnership …will help us prevail through this downturn. It's going to take some creativity, but what better place for all of this to revitalize into the future?"

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