Encinitas, a California beach town, thrived from the rise of American “car culture” along highway 101 but was hit hard by the construction of Interstate 5 in the 1960s. The new freeway diverted visitors and customers and led to development of new shopping centers a few miles from the town, creating “old” and “new” Encinitas.

Businesses relocated, others closed, and the remainder watched their “old” town show signs of wear and greeted fewer customers.

In 1988, a group of motivated business owners decided to breathe life back into downtown by forming a merchant association and applying to the California Main Street Program. As part of the California Main Street Program, Downtown Encinitas Main Street Association (DEMA) was formed and quickly went to work building connections in the community by offering facade grants, creating a street scape plan, and providing an array of initiatives and events that turned the once faded town into a vibrant arts center.

Now an old sign once mounted on highway 101 is a sign of the town’s revitalization. When the highway was widened, the sign was taken down; taking with it a part of the town’s identity but in 2001 it was returned due to the efforts of DEMA. It is now an icon and emblem for merchandise branding for all the coastal towns along Highway 101, which was designated a historic route in 1998. Encinitas teamed up with its neighbor, Oceanside, and created the Highway 101 Association to promote local cultural and historic assets and drive business to the coastal towns.

Encinitas retains its classic beach town look and feel as well as retaining many of its historic buildings, including La Paloma Theater, an 1883 school house, and several architecturally significant gas stations and motor lodges. To help these treasures stand out, DEMA has created a facade improvement program that offers a rebate program and works to demystify the construction permitting process and build better relationships between area merchants and the city. So far, 45 business owners have taken advantage of this program, investing more than $84 million in improvements to accentuate Encinitas’ buildings and personality.

Downtown Encinitas has seen tremendous growth. From 1994 to 2004 it gained 67 businesses, slashed 30 percent vacancy rates to zero, created 355 net new jobs, and helped realize almost 70 public and private projects totaling $23 million in improvements. DEMA has successfully harnessed the community’s artistic spirit to develop an arts niche. Using a once-vacant storefront they formed 101 Arts Colony, which is now a pillar of the community. The Arts Alive banner program, which adorns light posts with original works of art and features an auction to compensate the artists and raise funds for 101 Arts Colony.

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