Patrick Trautfield

Downtown San Luis Obispo has seen a chain reaction in the past year. Well, a chain store reaction, that is.

In the past 12 months or so, the downtown area has seen about 15 new stores open, eight of which have been part of a chain. These include U.S. shopping mall favorites like Abercrombie & Fitch, California Pizza Kitchen, Talbots, Pottery Barn and more.

The arrival of so many stores downtown in a short period of time is unusual, said Bill Dunsmore, the associate planner for the city of San Luis Obispo.

“We see probably one or two (chain stores) a year popping in, but the last couple of years have seen just an incredible amount of development,” he said.

With the sudden influx of corporate-owned businesses, some locals are concerned that the city could lose its small-town atmosphere.

“When Barnes and Noble came in, about four bookstores disappeared,” said Richard Mason, 56, who has lived in San Luis Obispo for about 30 years. “It becomes more homogenized; it starts to look like every other place.”

But even some locally-owned businesses, like H&G Clothing of San Luis Obispo – located just four doors away from Abercrombie & Fitch – said that the opening of well-known stores will carry some benefits.

“It brings more people downtown,” co-owner Holly Gosnell said. “A lot of people in Santa Maria are saying, ‘We don’t have to go to Santa Barbara anymore.’ So now we’re getting that rush of people this way.”

But with more people and sales downtown, building owners have begun raising rent prices. Not only that, but many stores have gone up for sale because of recent city ordinances requiring seismic retrofits, Dunsmore said.

“If it does drive a small business away, the only thing that’s going to drive them is because the buildings and owners keep jacking prices up,” Gosnell said.

Jenna Morton, a manager at Cold Stone Creamery on Higuera Street, said that chain stores like hers offer advantages that independent stores can’t, such as “consistency, quality and familiarity.”

“You know what you’re going to get,” she said. “I think people really like that around here.”

Morton added that as more chain stores come downtown, tourists will be drawn in too, only adding to profits.

“Tourists definitely flock to places that they know are good,” she said.

As Renoda Campbell, 43, of San Luis Obispo, snacked on a mid-day scoop of ice cream outside, she said that she enjoys the variety of products that chain stores, like Cold Stone, can offer.

“There’s an issue right now where I have a child in middle school and we actually shop in Santa Maria so that she doesn’t have the same clothes or frequent the same stores as other people do,” Campbell said. “And having chain stores, you just have a better variety.”

But as the downtown area adds more corporate enterprises, some locals say that San Luis Obispo could easily start to resemble another well-known but high-priced Central Coast city.

“It’s going to become like another Santa Barbara,” said Ronald Adams, a brand representative at Abercrombie & Fitch on Higuera Street. “It’s going to be good business-wise. More people from Santa Maria and other places will come shopping here. SLO is expanding anyways – the population is going up because of Cal Poly admitting more students.”

Dunsmore agreed, noting that if anything, the downtown could see even more corporate development in coming years.

“I think it’s very possible,” Dunsmore said of San Luis Obispo’s evolution toward a Santa Barbara-like downtown. “We have two more very significant projects in the works in terms of multi-story buildings . that could go up to five or six stories in height and could cover entire city blocks.”

Despite the possibility of losing its independent feel, Dunsmore said that he’s not worried about it.

“I think it’ll be real tight knit because the downtown doesn’t sprawl out that much,” he said. “It’ll have the same type of feel with more options.”

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