What does San Leandro have to offer and what can it do better? How is the city perceived by those who live, work and visit here, and how might its assets be better marketed to bring in new businesses, consumers and residents?
Those were some of the questions several city staff members and two dozen business people—many of them active in the community—were tasked with answering on Monday during the first meeting of the San Leandro Branding Marketing Working Group.
The members, led by marketing communications consultants from The Placemaking Group, were selected and approved by the City Council at its March 7 meeting.
The Oakland-based firm was hired by the city to facilitate the working group, interview businesses and consumers, develop a brand and create a marketing strategy for the city. Under the contract, services are not to exceed $10,000.
Placemaking Group President Dennis Erokan told participants Monday there are a lot of ways to get the story out, but the first step is coming up with a brand to differentiate San Leandro from its competition—which, he said, means all areas within a 20-mile radius.
He said for people who work in San Leandro, the two most important factors are public safety and food options, because those things come into play during the lunch hour.
Consumers from nearby cities must be given at least two reasons to come to town—such as dinner before a live show or places to both shop and grab something to eat, he suggested.
Lastly, he said, residents must be told why it benefits them to shop locally instead of spending their dollars elsewhere.
"You can't tell them to shop San Leandro by guilt," Erokan said.
By the end of the session, participants agreed that part of the problem with attracting each of the three groups is the public's lack of information on what amenities the city has to offer.
"People don't know where to go," said Cynthia Battenberg, business development manager for the city.
Tim Holmes, owner of , noted the lack of press San Leandro receives in regional publications, and Bal Theatre owner Dan Dillman agreed the city is "currently operating below the radar."
And while it is not very well known among East Bay cities, San Leandro also suffers from both a perception and reality of crime, lackluster schools and a dearth of shopping and entertainment options to attract more visitors and residents, particularly of the millennial generation, attendees agreed.
Another problem that attendees said needs to be dealt with is San Leandro's history of racism.
John Gooding, who runs a consulting group that provides services to Madison Marquette (owner of Bayfair Shopping Center), said the city should have embraced African American author and local resident Brian Copeland's memoir Not a Genuine Black Man when it was released in 2006 instead of scorning it.
Holmes also mentioned how the city cancelled a book project about San Leandro's history in 2005 after the writer wanted to include a discussion of housing discrimination.
Incidents like that help bolster the perception that San Leandro is "an old town that does things the old way," said Gooding.
Many agreed with Gooding when he said that in some ways the city is holding itself back. "San Leandro has a lot of benefits that we're not taking advantage of because we don't think of ourselves that way," he said.
Some blamed such issues on a lack of vision among city leaders and fractionalized attempts to define what the city is and where it wants to be, citing the wish to bring in Trader Joe's despite demographics that are more inclined to support stores like Grocery Outlet instead.
Attendees were optimistic that San Leandro is at a turning point. By implementing unified marketing campaigns, embracing its diversity and dreaming big, the city can grow and flourish in the coming years, several people said.
"We're ready to change," said Gaye Quinn, chair-elect of the Chamber of Commerce and a real estate broker with the Quorum Real Estate Group.
Participants had no trouble coming up with a comprehensive list of San Leandro's strengths, which centered on its friendliness and small-town feel, many amenities and access to all the Bay Area has to offer, given its central location.
Other features include one of the most culturally diverse populations in the state; transit (including two BART stations and easy freeway access to I-580 and I-880); proximity to the Oakland Airport; and the marina and seven miles of public shoreline.
San Leandro also has walkable and historic neighborhoods, ethnic markets, community festivals and farmers' markets, multiple theaters, sports facilities that include Burrell Field, Farrelly Pool, the Monarch Bay Golf Club and Triple Play USA batting cages, a developed downtown and several retail shopping centers.
Restuarants that participants said should be promoted are and , both fine dining establishments. was ranked the #2 sports bar in the county by Sports Illustrated in 2005. Zocalo Coffeehouse was singled out for its recognition as a community hub.
There is also a burgeoning medical services industry, with construction of a new Kaiser Permanente facility and relocation of Paramedics Plus Ambulance Service.
On the environmental front, people pointed out the city attracted nearly $30 million in grant funding to build a transit-oriented housing development around the San Leandro BART station, is a member of the East Bay Green Corridor and has a number of LEED-certified buildings.
For example, San Leandro's new senior center was awarded the LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Institute in March.
While business efforts to "go green" are supported, there's also plenty of space to expand, since nearly a quarter of the city's land is zoned for industrial use. Some attendees expressed concern that this land is not being fully utilized.
Businesses can also take advantage of reasonable land prices and a lower business tax than in surrounding communities, Battenberg said.
Battenberg helped implement the idea of a branding study and promotional campaign after meeting with the San Leandro Chamber of Commerce and dealers at the Marina Auto Mall to gain their support for Measure Z, the sales tax increase that went into effect April 1.
Gordon Galvan, a consultant representing the auto mall, director of the organization that runs the LINKS shuttle from BART to downtown and a former city council member, said a branding strategy will help the city take advantage of its assets.
"We can do a better job of attracting people to our community and serving those who live here better," he said.
While Battenberg said the city makes it easy for businesses to operate in town, some business people present Monday said the issue was debateable.
Dillman said people tell him it is difficult to do business in San Leandro. Corina Lopez, who heads the Latino Business Council, said she doesn't think the city currently provides enough incentives for businesses.
The group didn't discuss just the good and the bad, but the future as well.
Arlene Lum, a website manager for AT&T who heads the Asian Business Council, said there was a great opportunity to create a regional Asian shopping center, since the closest that exist are in Albany and Milpitas.
2010 census data show that about of San Leandro's population identifies as Asian.
Jenny Linton, executive vice president of operations and administration for , said she sees the possibility of creating a high-tech industry in town.
Battenberg said she would like to build more multi-unit housing downtown, as well as develop the marina to include office space and a conference and wellness center.
Dillman envisions a streetcar on E. 14th Street to shuttle people from the Bal district to downtown.
The working group will meet again in one month. Three meetings are scheduled for this spring before The Placemaking Group presents its findings to the city council in the fall.