Downtown awaits commercial anchor
by Jon Mendelson
Jan 31, 2008 | 785 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print

When one door closes, another door opens.

Youngplay Memories Scrapbooks, in the heart of downtown Tracy, will lock up for the final time Feb. 8. The scrapbook emporium, which set up shop in the old JC Penney building in March 2006, is closing under the weight of a slumping economy and high rent and utility costs, but mostly because of the pressure of running a family business.

Owner Nancy Young explained last week that the scrapbook store is the third business she runs with her husband. The pace of managing all three was starting to get hectic, she said, and one of them — the downtown experiment — just had to go.

Don’t be sad for Young. This isn’t a story of a mom-and-pop being driven out by a Wal-Mart-sized competitor. It’s more a decision to save sanity. Young told me that closing was an option, not a necessity. “It’s a good thing,” she said.

It’s a good thing for both her and downtown Tracy.

Ultimately, the 20,000-square-foot building on the corner of 10th and B streets isn’t the kind of quaint, cozy place best suited to getting your scrap on. Youngplay Memories was nice to visit, but walking through that space, with the curtained second story and cavernous ceiling, you got the feeling that it could be — and should be — more.

This is a big, brawny location in need of a dream-big business. The next tenant or building owner has a chance to add punch to a historical building long bereft of heft.

Some have already tried.

Since JC Penney left the place after 42 years in 1996, when the West Valley Mall monster made a downtown Penney’s passé, several purveyors have come and gone. A furniture store and a thrift shop have opened and closed. And Calvary Chapel conceived and abandoned an effort to make it a house of worship.

All that floor space and a sizable utility bill make staying in business there a challenge.

“It’s an albatross,” one downtown storeowner told me. He speculated that the way to make it in that building is to either bring in a big-time business (in concept or name) or divide the space into separate stores (a tactic largely discredited by the defunct Tracy Mini Mall).

Regardless of what or who exactly sets up shop, downtown merchants seem to agree that Youngplay’s successor should be a destination location, something that adds to the area’s draw. That means “restaurants and retail,” according to Diana Koron of the Downtown Tracy Business Improvement Area, which has similar hopes for other vacant downtown storefronts. Food and fashion, evidently, are the keys to improving old-town business.

I asked a few downtown regulars for their specific suggestions for the soon-to-be-empty Penney’s building. One thought of turning it into a dance club for teens, young adults and seniors on various nights. (I can see the disco ball on the second floor while R&B beats pound in the basement.)

Another interesting idea came from Barista’s owner Harish Patel, who envisioned it as a family entertainment center, a la John’s Incredible Pizza Co.

“I have to take my kids to Livermore or Modesto for something like that,” he said. “This town is missing one of those places. … This town needs something for families.”

Certainly, this town needs something — hopefully, a bold stroke in the old JC Penney building that adds panache to downtown’s already wonderful and eclectic mix of businesses.

Tracy has a shining cultural center in the Grand Theatre and a gleaming political capital in City Hall. It now has a chance to add a commercial anchor.

Let the quest be fruitful.

• Contact Jon at jmendelson@tracypress.com, or read his blog for more Second Thoughts.

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