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September 29, 2023

The city that works

Paso Robles, Hollister in sharp contrast
It’s a small, relatively isolated town, located next to a river.
Its history is linked to the land, and agriculture remains a
dominant influence. A famous earthquake fault cleaves the region,
but a host of historically significant buildings have weathered the
occasional jiggle.
Paso Robles, Hollister in sharp contrast

It’s a small, relatively isolated town, located next to a river. Its history is linked to the land, and agriculture remains a dominant influence. A famous earthquake fault cleaves the region, but a host of historically significant buildings have weathered the occasional jiggle.

As urban areas creep closer, the face of agriculture is changing and wine grapes are a larger presence. Wine is helping give birth to a growing tourism industry.

Sound familiar? Welcome to Paso Robles.

The Central Coast town bears more than a passing resemblance to Hollister, but it’s the dissimilarities that struck a group of Hollister residents who visited that city to the south last week.

The visit was coordinated through the Hollister Downtown Association, and the tour was conducted by Norma Moye, executive director of Paso Robles’ counterpart organization, the Main Street Association.

Empty storefronts are a rarity in Paso Robles, and rents are as much as double those for commercial space in Hollister.

More than a dozen wineries operate tasting rooms downtown. Twenty-four restaurants are open for dinner, one for every thousand residents in the town.

While Hollister experienced the most devastating earthquake in generations 17 years ago, in 1989, Paso Robles’ downtown was devastated less than four years ago. Today, only two buildings in that town are not completed. The only visible sign of the quake is a gaping hole in the City Hall Parking lot, the site of a mineral spring that started gushing 200 gallons per minute when the quake struck.

“Prior to the earthquake, downtown was on a roll,” said Nick Sherwin, a local jeweler. “At the same time the old, established retailers were going out and restaurants were taking their place. It was after the earthquake that the wine tasting rooms started coming in. We’re not 100 percent back but we’re at a point where we’re sustaining.”

Paso Robles has hitched its wagon to high-end wine, propelled in part by the unexpected movie hit “Sideways,” which profiled the Central Coast grape business. The area now counts more than 170 wineries.

“You’ve got to do something different,” Moye said.

By there own estimate, about 30 percent of the money spent by local residents on retail goods leaves the community. Estimates for Hollister commissioned by private parties fix the retail drain at more than twice that amount.

According to the “California Retail Survey,” prepared each year by the Eureka Group, Hollister is on the ropes.

The city earns the lowest rating given, at one star. Paso Robles, by contrast, gets top marks with a five-star rating.

Groceries are the only category in which Hollister residents spend above the California average. Contrast that with Paso Robles, where local spending exceeds the state average in every category, sometimes by more than double. Average per family retail spending in 2006 was $31,376. In Paso Robles the total was $57,637.

That does not mean that everyone who lives in Paso Robles is dropping almost $60K on themselves, but rather that money is traveling into the city.

Located along Highway 101, the isolated town logged $6,390 per family in service station income, more than twice the $3,283 state average.

San Luis Obispo, the county seat, is a 30 minutes’ drive to the south. As buildings in its downtown are retrofitted for seismic safety, rents are climbing. The result has been a boon to Paso Robles, Moye said.

“Businesses are now looking here to relocate,” Moye said, noting that the town is expected to pass San Luis in population.

Not so long ago, Paso Robles looked a lot like downtown Hollister.

“Back in the ’70s, you could actually see on any given summer day two, three or more people riding their horses into downtown. We had four drug stores, three major groceries downtown, a stationery store, a major appliance store, a couple of auto stores,” remembered Sherwin. Then Wal-Mart opened near Highway 101, and downtown abruptly changed.

“You can’t compete with them,” Moye said as she acknowledged that it’s the discount giant that receives most of the local spending. “Look at wine tasting. You have to have unique shops.”

Small things, like plentiful benches, invite people to linger, Moye said.

Moye and a few other local residents heard of a program that offered outside assistance to businesses and Paso Robles became a Main Street city, just like Hollister. At the time, 1988, the downtown vacancy rate was more than 50 percent.

“Our success is due to the movie theater,” Moye guessed. “When that went in, then our restaurants started to open.”

Another advantage is that government never moved out of downtown. Across the street from a leafy town square featuring a Victorian-style bandstand is a shiny new library and city hall. Just down the street an entire block is filled with a new police and fire center. Government offices containing 50 more employees are above a jewelry store.

Hollister jeweler Rick Maddux, a member of the HDA board of directors, was a member of the delegation visiting Paso Robles.

“I was impressed to see what they’ve been able to do,” Maddux said. “Norma [Moye] must be able to weave a magic spell to have the kind of volunteer base they have. People there are willing to get in and help.”

Maddux was operating his downtown jewelers in 1989 when the Loma Prieta Earthquake wrote $100 million damage in the community.

The speed of Paso Robles’ recovery from a similar disaster also impressed him.

The size and commitment of the volunteer community that the Main Street Association relies on allows the group to pack the calendar with special events ranging from downtown trick-or-treating on Halloween to car shows, Christmas promotions, parades and festivals.

“They’ve got something going on all the time,” Maddux said. He said that the HDA board already has begun focusing on new opportunities to recognize volunteers.

Further information on the Hollister Downtown Association is available through the HDA office at 636-8406.

Mark Paxton can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

Mark Paxton
A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.

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