Downtown Heads Uptown

Posted on March 14, 2017

Economic development moves into the driver’s seat.

Photo by Nicholas Wray

TWO ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT SPECIALISTS—with different styles and backgrounds but linked missions—are working behind the scenes and on center stage to make the most of Sacramento’s perpetually moving transformation from a government town and slow-but-steady region into a dynamic American metropolis.

Michael Ault, 48, is executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership (DSP), a 66-block business district he’s been with for 19 years. When he began his job, his budget was $1.5 million and he had seven employees. Today, owing both to the success of his organization in keeping companies in Sacramento and luring new ones to his market, the DSP has a 55-member staff and a budget of more than $5 million.

Barry Broome, who’s 55, is president and chief executive officer of the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council. He’s the region’s uber-booster, the guy who used to steal companies and jobs from Sacramento (among other cities) and take them back to Phoenix, where he had a job fairly identical to the one he took here a little more than a year-and-a-half ago.

In separate interviews, each reflected on the changes occurring downtown and in its vast backyard: Sacramento County, whose residents and businesses are slowly reversing the fabled reverse commute, with more empty-nesters and millennials living in the city and working in the suburbs.

Michael Ault
Michael Ault; Photo by Jason Sinn


“I think all of us involved in Sacramento’s transformation agree on this: We’ve got one chance to do this really right,” Ault says. “In the next couple of years, people will be coming here for the first time. Downtown will have to be about more than just restaurants and bars. It’s got to be about multiple uses and lifestyles.”

A lanky sometime-runner, Ault is half-sprawled across a desk chair at his fourth-floor offices in the heart of downtown, at 980 Ninth St. He’s proud but not boastful about the fact that almost all the members of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership—which may have been the first property-based business improvement district in California when it was formed in 1996—have just re-upped for another 10 years. “I’m gratified but not very surprised,” he says. “We work very hard to make sure Sacramento’s downtown is a polished jewel. ‘Clean and Safe’ represent the cornerstones of what we do here.”

Ault marvels at the fact that downtown is becoming an increasingly mixed-use area, and credits Golden 1 Center and both the commercial and residential development it has stoked for the metamorphosis.

“The city of Sacramento used to be a place where people used to come just to work,” he says. “Now, we’re an urban neighborhood. People grew tired of driving 50 minutes each way, every day, on the I-80 or Highway 50 corridor to go home.” He points to the fact that many of his DSP employees live downtown. Similar to the live/work dynamic in major cities such as New York, Chicago and even hilly, tough-on-the-knees San Francisco, “They walk or bike to work,” he says. “If they want to go away for a special weekend, they rent cars.”

He’s also been discovering—as have research groups at local colleges—that young people who left Sacramento for college or career opportunities are moving back here. “People are saying, ‘I want to come home. I want to be part of this,’” Ault says.

There are now, according to DSP’s numbers, approximately 85,000 employees working in the downtown area. “The big change,” Ault says, “is that it’s no longer predominantly government employees. The mix of public- and private-sector jobs is evening up.”

Although he didn’t specify a timeline, he says his organization’s principal goal for downtown Sacramento in the foreseeable future is “to see 10 million square feet of Class-A office space. We’ll still need to see development happen in Natomas and other basically suburban areas. We’d also like to see our riverfront become truly relevant as part of our urban fabric.”

One of his hopes, that he almost apologizes for as he says it, is “that people will start coming downtown on a weeknight or weekend and not have a reservation anywhere for dinner. I want them to discover how amazing this town is, how you can find something interesting or exciting just by walking around.”

Barry Broome
Barry Broome; Photo by Jason Sinn


“Mark my words,” Barry Broome is saying, “Sacramento is going from ‘cow town’ to ‘now town.’ We’re not the Big Tomato. We’re the new California dream.”

If Broome seems to talk in taglines, it may be in his job description—or even his DNA. The head of the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council, Broome is in charge of luring companies to the area by touting the region’s attributes.

“Sacramento is a very cool place but not everyone who lives here recognizes that,” Broome says as he annihilates a hamburger at Foundation, the newest incarnation of Harry’s Bar and Grill and other “concept” restaurants that have occupied this site for decades. Turned over a number of times because it couldn’t attract and sustain a loyal patronage, its once iffy location—at Fourth and L streets in downtown Sacramento—may now be foolproof: across the street from Macy’s, it’s one block from the Golden 1 Center and the under-construction Downtown Commons, or DOCO, a new expanse of eateries, stores, offices and condos.

Broome is competitive and fast-talking (and even fast-eating), traits that have served him well from wrestling his way to a state championship in college to working with at-risk youth and as a neighborhood organizer in Cleveland’s now-gentrifying inner city. When he got into his current line of work, he was named economic developer of the year by Michigan, in 2001, and Arizona, in 2013. In the latter year, he was also feted by Arizona’s real estate industry as executive of the year and by Phoenix’s Black Chamber of Commerce.

Broome’s current employer is a nonprofit public/private partnership that includes a group of area CEOs who thought the region’s business and jobs growth could be jump-started by razing the 40-year-old Sacramento Area Commerce and Trade Organization and building a new business model. Each corporate honcho is chipping in around $100,000 per year to make sure Broome has the tools he needs to succeed. “I want to grow Sacramento’s economy by positioning it as the competitive response to Salt Lake City, Boston, Seattle and, yeah, Phoenix,” he says.

He continues: “Sacramento has so much more to offer than so many other cities. The only reason overpriced suburban communities like Mountain View and Cupertino survive is because of the Silicon Valley. I think some of those places will be (impacted) in the next five-to-10 years—because they don’t have lifestyles, like Sacramento has.” He takes a pause and says, “Sacramento is eclectic, unique. It has a great art scene, the weather’s great and you can be outdoors (all year round), either here or a two-hour drive from here.”

Broome is excited about the Golden 1 Center and the emerging DOCO but says there’s much more that will attract and sustain growth here. “Look, businesses move to places where they can get their problems solved, those problems all having to do with success. Texas solves problems for businesses because it doesn’t put obstacles in their way, like over-regulation.” He thinks that when Major League Soccer becomes a reality in Sacramento, even more than the existence of basketball and AAA baseball here, “Things will really start shaking. Millennials love soccer. There’s not a major city in America without a (sports franchise).”

“We’ve had the Kings since 1985 and we’re very lucky to have them,” Broome says. “And let’s be clear: If they’d moved to Seattle instead of staying here, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation. Offices and new shopping wouldn’t be getting built. And Sacramento would go back to being a bit complacent about being a cow town.”

Mentioning “cow town” a second time in the conversation seems to recharge Broome, who has a schedule that would exhaust a presidential candidate. He’s out at business and social events practically every night, works weekends and even after this chat, is scheduled to fly to meet with developers in Las Vegas then catch a red-eye flight home the next morning. He has been trying without much success to stifle yawns throughout this interview but now comes roaring back.

“I hate that term, ‘cow town,’” he says. “A cow town doesn’t have two major sports franchises. They aren’t state capitals. They don’t attract young people, which is what we’re doing and will continue to do.” He thinks that Sacramento “is a great place to be young or starting off.” He gestures at a young woman sitting across the aisle wearing a handsome, dark suit, and at a 20-something waiter who zips by the table. “These people are the future of Sacramento,” he says.

Broome thinks one of Sacramento’s challenges is that it’s “a legacy town. You’ve got to be from here to be accepted. You’ve got to be a graduate of Jesuit High, live in Land Park or East Sac.” He leans in close. “Towns like this can die. We have to make this a contemporary town.

“Our platform has to be about what’s happening next, not about what once was. We have to hire people who are just teeing off, not (who are) on the 18th hole. The country’s up-and-comers should be moving here.”

The Grimefighters
Downtown Sacramento cleans up after itself and keeps things safe out there.

If you’re the person tasked with cleaning up the streets after the circus parade—and all that entails—you’ll like knowing that the Sacramento Downtown Partnership has your back.

According to Michael Ault, the organization’s executive director, Clean and Safe is more than just an aspirational tagline: It’s a promise. “We have a Clean Streets team that works seven days a week (patrolling) downtown’s (public) sidewalks and alleys,” he says. According to the partnership, the team removes roughly 34,000 graffiti tags and far more than 800,000 tons of garbage every year.

It isn’t because we’re a city of slobs. It’s because, when it comes to debris, we’re victims of our own popularity.

Take the attendance figures for events held downtown. The weekly Certified Farmers Markets draw 224,000 attendees annually. Gold Rush Days attracts 120,000, and the California International Marathon lures 65,000.

Approximately 70,000 people go to Friday Night Concerts in the Park and 40,000 to the New Year’s Eve Sky Spectacular. Thirty-thousand people glide around the Downtown Holiday Ice Rink each year, a number that may increase if a permanent rink is built.

The Clean Streets squad, Ault says, performs these tasks, among others: graffiti removal, litter abatement and pressure washing (alleys and sidewalks).

On the Safe side, the Downtown Sacramento Partnership has its own community prosecutor on standby and connects the homeless with local service and care programs through its Navigator Team. Sutter Medical Center sponsors the program. The partnership’s service partners include, in addition to Sutter, Sacramento Self Help Housing, Cathedral Square House, the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, Volunteers of America and Sacramento Steps Forward.

“We want the people who live here, work here and visit here to feel they’re not alone,” Ault says. “This is a caring town.”