By Mark A. Diaz

As San Luis Obispo County continues to evolve, each city strives to capitalize on its branding and business niche. Paso Robles has its booming wine industry. San Luis Obispo has Cal Poly University and its sleeping tech giant that is beginning to stir. Avila Beach has completely changed into a gentrified tourist spot, and Pismo Beach is performing some of the most significant city beautification projects on the Central Coast, but Atascadero has remained relatively bogged down, something that Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Derek Kirk endeavors to change without sacrificing the heart and soul of the city.

Kirk took the Chamber’s reins at the beginning of 2018 and admittedly is reaping the rewards of the groundwork laid by his predecessors and the city.

“I will say that this organization is on extremely solid footing and my predecessor and her boards are to thank for that,” said Kirk.

Plans to revitalize the downtown area were approved earlier this year to develop several thousand square feet for retail business and more than 40 condo units on the second and third floors. The La Plaza project seeks to draw businesses and customers into the downtown location next to Sunken Gardens. The building will mirror the design of the historic rotunda building, home of city hall. The City also recently approved construction to begin on the Bridgewalk Hotel, an 82-room boutique hotel on the second and third floors and first floor will have a restaurant and retail.

“There is opportunity here,” said Kirk. “We’ve been a bedroom community for a number of years. Many of the people that work throughout the rest of the county come home at night to Atascadero. There are businesses that are starting to recognize that they can take advantage of that and make Atascadero into the shining star that I think it can be.”

Kirk said that a significant enticement for business in Atascadero is the price. He likes to tell the story of Nate’s Barber Shop, where the owner realized that he could pay for a month here for what he would pay for a booth space in a barbershop for a week in SLO. Kirk recalled that the owner said that Atascadero is the last frontier on the Central Coast. Currently Atascadero has the cheapest commercial square footage in the county and Kirk wants to keep it that way.

“It is a viable place to do business and to shop and have lots of opportunities,” said Kirk.

In June, the chamber rebranded itself with the mission statement “empowering our business community” and plans to highlight the main artery of the city, El Camino. The historic road connects the majority of Atascadero’s businesses with either being located on it or a side street that connects to it. Kirk wants to highlight the 7.5 miles of road that runs through the city instead of disparaging it.

“We’re really doing what we can to promote that length and the size or our community and show people the beauty of the El Camino,” said Kirk

The chamber relocated this month to the Colony Square Plaza at 6907 El Camino Real, in the “Creekside Building” and former city hall. On Monday, July 2, the organization unveiled the first North County co-working space called Bridgework in the same building. The facility offers members 24-hour access, a place to work, a mailbox, use of a conference room and, of course, unlimited coffee. Other amenities are provided with desk rentals that range in price from $150 to $350 a month.

Currently working on his master’s degree on organizational leadership with an emphasis on strategic innovation, Kirk is devising a way to assist companies in planning. Already partnering with Mission Community Services, the two organizations will produce monthly seminars for the members. A how to access capital class is slated for August. In 2019, the chamber plans to begin incubator programs to promote startups and give them a firm foundation to help them succeed.

“I love helping businesses develop plans and strategic structure in their business and business plans,” said Kirk.

In the fall, the chamber, partnering with the city, plans to launch Good Morning Atascadero, similar to Good Morning SLO, in the Galaxy Theater located in the Colony Square Plaza. The venue gives businesses the opportunity to showcase themselves, stay informed on local developments and provides an excellent source for networking.

“Our hope with this Good Morning Atascadero program is to create real facts for people so that the community takes ownership of the change that is happening.”

Kirk was clear to point out that the chamber and the city are on the same page when it comes to the vision for the community and its development. Both want to make changes and innovations while maintaining the historic nature of the town and the small town Americana feel.

“Gentrification is one of those things that we’re all battling to make sure that we are not kicking the local artists and art studios out,” said Kirk. “We want them to stay here.”

Affordability is the natural niche market Atascadero created for itself, though Kirk sees another pattern forming for the city, microbreweries. Despite SLO County being the third largest producer of wine, Atascadero only has a few within its city limits, however over the past few years several craft beer centered venues and micro distilleries have opened with more on the way.