Does Old Sacramento Need Saving?

You might have heard, the City of Sacramento built a new arena downtown. Some people are very excited about it. Others a bit less so. That divide may last for a while. It will take a number of years for either side to develop meaningful evidence of whether it was a good idea for spending a quarter billion dollars. In the mean time, everyone who cares about Sacramento’s future should be rooting for the arena’s success, but more importantly, looking to smooth out any problems that may arise.

One concern I have been hearing widely is that parking costs related to the arena are undercutting the public’s ability to patronize Old Sacramento’s businesses and cultural amenities. As one Old Sacramento business owner puts it, “We’re withering on the vine down here.” Speaking for myself, as a parent, when deciding where to take my child for a fun afternoon, paying a $15 parking tab would definitely be an impediment. That said, attendees of an arena event might stop by one of Old Sacramento’s businesses or be reminded of the fun times their family has had at the Railroad Museum.

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So is Old Sacramento in trouble?

Thanks to the good folks at State Parks and the City of Sacramento, I was able to quickly acquire the data to start to investigate the question, how did the arena impact attendance at the Railroad Museum and revenues for the local businesses?

Despite the concerns voiced by many, attendance at Sacramento’s venerable Railroad Museum has been steady through the first half of the Golden 1’s inaugural season. This may represent a small disappointment, after about two years of steady growth, but it is far from a catastrophe.

Railroad Attendance

How about the businesses? That data is a little less timely, only running through the third quarter of 2016, missing the Kings season, but it does show a small 2.4% decline over the prior year. It may have been impacted by the loss of parking at the mall or difficulties related to construction. It may also have just been a small correction after growth of 5.7% the prior year. The revenue has bounced around quite a bit, so we should avoid reading too much into a small change. I am told that revenue was down modestly this winter, but that could just as easily be explained by the extreme weather.

It is unclear to me if Old Sacramento needs saving from anything except the freeway, but there is nothing like a good controversy to drive progress. As a part of his “Destination Sacramento” campaign, the mayor and some business leaders are pushing to kick the area up a notch as well. Ideas include public art, water taxis, expanded dinner cruises, additional events, best of all, a terrace that would literally allow visitors to dip their toes in the river and, worst of all, a new name.

The terrace would be amazing. The challenge would be dealing with the numerous layers of bureaucracy involved with ensuring our region’s flood safety. Public art, as well, whether a series of tomato on a fork statues or a statue commemorating the sesquicentennial, would be fantastic. I suspect at some point one of my colleagues at Sacramentality will write on the economic benefits of public art. I wonder about the value of water taxis that do not really have anywhere to go, but I would not write it off.

Here is another idea. The City could use perceptions of difficulty on game days, whether real or imagined, as a marketing ploy the rest of the time. It could offer discounted parking on non-arena days and blast it out on social media, email lists and the morning shows as “family fun days.” Best yet, the program would cost virtually nothing.

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