That's why so many visit Placerville's Main Street, Mayor Mark Acuna told me as we drove around the small California city on a hot Saturday afternoon. The Mayor explained that many Californians are surprised when they first stop in Placerville and see an alternative to the typical strip development and big box stores.
Placerville's located between the heavily populated Sacramento and San Francisco Bay areas to the west and the Lake Tahoe resort area to the east -- right along U.S. Highway 50.
With a population of 10,400, the city has so far managed to retain its small town character and historic Main Street district. Among other things, Main Street features the oldest continually operated hardware store west of the Mississippi River.
It's also the hometown of Thomas Kinkade, perhaps the most commercially successful artist in America, whose Kinkade gallery stores flourish nationwide.
Having visitors shop in Placerville is just fine with Mayor Acuna and with longtime Community Development Director Steve Calfee. Placerville, like other California communities, is heavily dependent on sales tax revenues to support its municipal budget, so commercial development is vital.
[photo of Steve Calfee (left) and Mayor Mark Acuna (right) in front of the location of the locally famous hangman's tree; Placerville used to be known as Hangtown -- and is still sometimes called that by locals]
Mayor Acuna, who earlier served for nine years on the Placerville Planning Commission, explained that Placerville needs to preserve what it has, while feeding off the economic reality of suburban development from western El Dorado County and the expanding Sacramento metro area.
"One of our biggest challenges is mixing in tourists, while keeping Placerville a working town," he noted. Another challenge is to provide moderate income housing. In Placerville, this means housing in the $400,000 to $450,000 price range.
Placerville has paid attention to the small details that make for a successful main street. As one example, Steve described a new Starbucks on Main Street. The original proposal for the vacant lot called for putting parking in front of the coffee house. The city's planners wanted the parking located in the back, with a patio in front.
To help make this work, the city waived its parking requirement for outdoor dining, reducing the required number of parking spaces. The result is that the Starbucks helps maintain the character of Main Street, instead of being inconsistent with it.
While Placerville planners are trying to encourage more evening activities downtown, Steve told me they want to avoid having a "punks and drunks downtown."
Route 50 itself is a mixed blessing for the city. The four lane highway (with additional turning lanes) bisects the city. On the plus side, Route 50 provides easy access for visitors traveling east-west -- and Main Street is only one block south of the highway.
Planners might also find of interest the new Home Depot in a commercial district on the western side of Placerville (there's more to commercial development in the city than Main Street).
Steve believes it's the most costly Home Depot ever built in the U.S.
Walking around the store you can understand why. As Steve noted, "it's a very difficult site." Among other things, a major stream was relocated by the store (back to its original course, Steve added).
Also of note is a kind of tradition in Placerville. Most city councilors in recent history previously served as planning commissioners. Mayor Acuna counted four of the five current councilors as former planning commission members. That means the governing body is very familiar with planning goals and objectives, and knowledgeable about land development issues.
If you're a planning commissioner reading this post, with thoughts of "graduating" to your governing body, you might want to read an article Otis White wrote for us, Should You Run?