Parts of Imperial Avenue are a ghost town, where shuttered storefronts line long stretches of Encanto’s business corridor.

For years, community leaders have prioritized filling the area with thriving local businesses to keep more money in the neighborhood, create gathering spaces and make sure residents have access to healthy food.

Development is on the way, but now leaders are concerned the new mixed-use buildings, with housing on the top floors and retail space on the ground, won’t actually bring the new businesses they crave. It’ll just be more empty commercial space, and the same old problems.

One large project is under way on Imperial, near the 62nd Street trolley stop. It’ll bring 67 units for low-income residents and a large swath of commercial space. Another mixed-use project is in planning a block away.

Kenneth Malbrough, chair of the Encanto planning group, said development has increased slowly since the city updated the area’s community plan in 2015, hoping to encourage exactly these types of dense, mixed-use projects near public transit.

Malbrough embraces the strategy, but is worried that since a lot of the new housing is reserved for low-income residents, it won’t attract enough businesses willing to move into the neighborhoods.

“Businesses, they count average incomes in areas,” he said. “So when you fill up all your development areas with affordable housing, there’s a big Catch-22. Businesses from outside these neighborhoods aren’t paying any attention to us.”

Despite the new development, Malbrough said, the community seems to be in the same position.

“We’re a business desert,” he said. “So how do we drop in thousands of units and we don’t have enough businesses to serve them? How come nobody outside is looking here? Why are these larger businesses turning their noses at us?”

The influx of commercial space opening soon in southeastern San Diego is something that’s been at the center of Liliana Garcia-Rivera’s radar since the community plan update. Garcia is a former Barrio Logan community organizer who’s now the executive director of the Diamond Business Association, a nonprofit that works to boost business in southeastern San Diego.

“It presents a big challenge for the business community and for developers,” she said. “We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to fill that space.”

Kevin Wilson, owner of Master Barbers
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

The Diamond Business Association has been organizing community-building events like a food truck festival that ran weekly in June. Garcia said she’s also thinking about organizing a Battle of the Barbers event in the fall to showcase the region’s salons and barbershops. She and her staff have also been working with businesses already in the district to get small loans through a crowdfunding program to fund expansions.

A big problem Garcia’s trying to solve is stopping the amount of economic leakage that happens because people who live in southeastern San Diego leave their neighborhoods and spend money at restaurants and retailers elsewhere. A 2006 study of the City Council district that includes the area found local residents spent $1.6 billion a year, but only $813 million of it stayed in the district.

“People get in their cars and they drive outside of the district and they don’t buy here,” Garcia said. “We want to counteract that.”

The Diamond Business Association runs shop-local campaigns, helps businesses connect with city funding to spruce up storefronts and provides other marketing and business resources to pump up the local business scene.

This fall, the Diamond Business Association will also partner with the city’s nonprofit development agency Civic San Diego, the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation and Wells Fargo bank to launch a campaign to attract new businesses that includes bus tours of the region.

“We’ll invite potential investors,” said Civic San Diego’s Gustavo Bidart. “Developers, architects and bankers, and we’ll show people who haven’t been in the community for a little while all this great space that’s available.”

It won’t be the first time local groups tried the strategy. In 2015, Mayor Kevin Faulconer and City Councilwoman Myrtle Cole did the same thing, looking to solve the same problem.

The greater southeastern San Diego area was also dubbed a Promise Zone by former President Barack Obama’s administration. The designation doesn’t carry any funding, but it gives an edge when applying for federal grants. Bidart said he thinks it’s an important incentive.

Meanwhile, a few businesses in southeastern San Diego are stepping up to claim more space.

Kevin Wilson, the owner of Master Barbers on Imperial Avenue, recently raised a few thousand dollars with the help of the Diamond Business Association. He’s in the middle of expanding his business to the vacant storefront next door so he can cater to the people who eventually move into the developments near the trolley station.

“That’s going to bring a flood of people to this area,” he said. “So that’s what I’m waiting for – I’m building for that.”

A block away on Imperial, Justin Flynn, owner of an urban clothing, art and music shop called The Avenue, said he’s preparing for the two new projects on Imperial Avenue, too. He’s also trying to raise money with the help of Diamond Business Association to add more products to his store so his new neighbors will see him as a destination for family clothing.

Justin Flynn, owner of The Avenue
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

“I think it’s clutch,” he said. “I’m excited because that’s like 60 apartments over there and they’re all going to eventually come across the street to see what we have to offer.”

The area, though, has its challenges. Flynn said he wants to stay in the neighborhood, but that sometimes it feels like an uphill battle to do business there.

“Right now, I think I have a [homeless] guy living on the roof, so that’s a problem,” he said. ”But I’m trying to be here with open arms, and I just hope I have what people want.”

Kinsee Morlan was formerly the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego and author of the Culture Report. She also managed VOSD’s podcasts and covered...

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