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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Hector Gonzalez
Special to The Lookout

August 14, 2015 -- More than 20 million people visited Downtown Santa Monica and Third Street Promenade during the last fiscal year, making purchases that generated more than $1.5 billion in sales taxes for the City, said the CEO of Downtown Santa Monica Inc. (DTSM)

Despite its small size -- the improvement district accounts for 4 percent of Santa Monica's land -- businesses within it produced more than a third of the City's total sales tax in 2014-15, Downtown Santa Monica Inc. (DTSM) CEO Kathleen Rawson said Thursday in a speech presenting the organization's annual report.

Combined with hotel tax and other revenue, the Downtown area generated more than $1.161 billion in sales taxes “in a single year,” Rawson said in a talk before City and business leaders that was generally upbeat.

“How does the City of Santa Monica use that money? To fund great parks, schools, libraries, seniors services, smooth streets, trim grass—you name it,” she said.

But Rawson also touched on “challenges” including the high demand for Downtown office space and rising rents. Attractive amenities have drawn employers to the area but have also pushed monthly rents for offices to more than $4 per square foot, among the highest in the L.A. region, she said.

Tourists also continue flocking to Downtown, where hotels enjoyed 80 percent occupancy rates last fiscal year. Visitors paid an average of $312 per night for a Downtown hotel room, making the area “a destination for tourists with ample disposable income and spending power,” said Rawson.

In last year's report, Downtown leaders set a number of major goals, including bringing Lincoln Boulevard merchants into the improvement district, which was accomplished earlier this year when business owners voted to join. Rawson said DTSM will officially begin working with Lincoln merchants in January.

Lincoln Boulevard is “the unofficial but important entry” point in the Downtown area, and will be even more so when the Expo Light Rail line from Downtown L.A. to Downtown Santa Monica opens early next year, she said.

Rawson noted that most of the residential development proposed for Downtown “will occur along Lincoln Boulevard, but approximately 4,000 residents already call the neighborhood home.”

“Nearly half of these residents fall between the ages of 25 and 44 and more than 60 percent hold bachelor's degrees or higher,” said Rawson.

For 90 percent of renters in the neighborhood, the median rent is $1,518 a month, which is up 12 percent from 2013-14, she said.

“This median rent number may seem low to you, but keep in mind that much of the City's affordable and senior housing is concentrated in Downtown,” Rawson said.

Along with Lincoln, the Colorado Esplanade also will become a major entry point into Downtown with the Expo's arrival, which is expected to bring thousands more visitors to the area. As a result, Rawson said, the City and DTSM have invested heavily in signs and other directional guides to help visitors find their way around, she said.

This past year, DTSM succeeded in adding Colorado Boulevard to the improvement district, a move that will fund extra maintenance and ambassador services for visitors to the Esplanade, a pedestrian promenade designed to create a natural “flow” of foot traffic directly from the Expo station on Colorado west into Downtown, according to the DTSM's annual report.

Downtown officials also improved “street communications” with pedestrians with the completion this past year of a pilot project that installed two custom-designed map cases and one 32-foot-tall “way-finding” pylon at the north end of Third Street Promenade, near Wilshire Boulevard, according to the DTSM report and City documents.

New signs, map directories, news racks and updated light poles for the area will serve “as a template for a larger makeover to create a more uniform look for Downtown,” said a City staff report on the pilot project.

Most of the improvement district's $6 million annual operating budget continues to go for maintenance and the “ambassador” services that help guide visitors around Downtown, Rawson said.

Although basic, those amenities are a key part in DTSM's efforts to ensure visitors “receive the best experience possible from the moment they arrive,” said Rawson, adding that cleaning up after all those visitors can also provide a good indicator of Downtown's popularity.

In 2014-15 the district collected more than 19,000 pounds of trash -- compared to about 12,300 in 2013-14 -- and pressure washed more than 2 million square feet of sidewalks, alleys and parking lots.

Ambassador service guides helped more than 100,000 lost visitors with directions “and dealing with urgent situations like lost items or vehicle jumps,” said Rawson.


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