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San Rafael introduces online business support tools

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Rob Simmons has always wanted to open his own place.

In October, the 59-year-old Novato resident, who has a background in gaming and graphic design, secured a lease. By the end of March, Pixels Arcade Taproom at 1137 Fourth St. in San Rafael was open for business.

It’s just like it sounds: a hall full of classic arcade games such as Pac-Man and Ms. Pac Man, Centipede, Donkey Kong, pinball and more. It also has a console gaming lounge with Xbox and PlayStation, all of which can be enjoyed with beer and wine.

“The city has been very approachable and supportive,” Simmons said. “Their communication is great. Professional yet friendly and personable.”

It’s an experience for new business owners that city staffers hope to replicate with a fresh campaign marketing San Rafael as a business-friendly city.

The initiative — called San Rafael Go — was introduced at a City Council meeting on June 3. It’s an expansion of city services to the business community but with an aim to get people the answers they are looking for more easily, said Stacey Laumann, the city’s program manager of economic development.

“We try to establish a single point of contact for people that have inquiries, whether they’re about development, or needing help with business retention or moving a business or starting a new business,” Laumann said.

San Rafael Go is an online customer service portal to help business people with questions about real estate and development opportunities, and to connect small business owners with financial, workforce and other technical resources.

The program is part of the city’s economic development strategic plan that was approved in May 2023 as a way to rebound the city’s downtown from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. With many people working from home, fewer people are grabbing coffee on the way to offices, and shops are seeing less midday foot traffic.

The city hired Kosmont Companies for $157,590 using pandemic relief money to develop the plan with a set of 32 actions to explore over five years.

Another initiative the city is exploring is converting the San Rafael Downtown Business Improvement District into a property-based business improvement district. As it stands today, business owners in the downtown pay an annual assessment that supports business improvement district activities, including safety, security, cleanliness and events.

In a property-based district, an assessment would also be collected from property owners.

Last month, the city began soliciting a consulting firm to help develop a transition plan to consider. The process is expected to take 18 months, Laumann said.

Micah Hinkle, the city’s director of community and economic development, said the effort is a reflection of the changing times.

“With the change of COVID and loss of our office businesses, we have to really lean on the other parts of the community, which is the property owners,” Hinkle said.

Additionally, Kosmont has produced an analysis of what’s called an enhanced infrastructure finance district, which are special districts funded by property taxes that the city can bond against to support development projects. A presentation on that study is expected this summer.

Arts programming also draws foot traffic downtown, Laumann said. The city’s economic recovery plan involves awarding $709,890 in grant funds from the California Arts Commission for events in the Downtown San Rafael Arts District. Examples of the district-funded activities include murals in public schools and private buildings, window displays on businesses and other projects.

The economic development plan is exploring ways to support the cannabis industry.

In 2022, the City Council slashed taxes on cannabis delivery operators struggling with pandemic stress, industry hurdles and weighty state regulations, which they are all still dealing with today, Hinkle said.

The special business tax was cut to 2% through December 2024 — a reduction from a 4% tax. Laumann said staff is working with cannabis operators and plans to propose a new rate before the expiration.

Shannon Ronan, left, and her wife Breelyn MacDonald of San Rafael play a vintage game at Pixels Arcade Taproom in San Rafael, Calif., on Friday, June 1, 2024. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)

Joshua Townsend, policy director of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce, said business leaders support the city’s efforts.

“I think the way the city is approaching its economic recovery is extremely positive, and extremely business-centric,” Townsend said. “I really feel that they are looking at ways to really support businesses, but also looking to provide a means for them to expand and also bring in new business.”

When it came to looking for a location for Pixels, Simmons, an East Coast transplant who said he’s grown attached to the community after living in Marin for 20 years, said, “I knew I really wanted it to be in San Rafael.”

“I really feel like there was a void here that needed to be filled with something special like this,” Simmons said.

Simmons said he supports the city’s effort to attract and retain business.

“The city itself is a great, central location in Marin County that’s very user friendly,” Simmons said. “It’s urban enough to offer a number of attractions, but Fourth Street still has the small town feel. I say bring it on.”

Pixels Arcade Taproom owner Rob Simmons puts two sets of darts together for Max Buchholz and his wife at Pixels Arcade Taproom in San Rafael, Calif. on Friday, June 1, 2024. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)
Pixels Arcade Taproom owner Rob Simmons puts two sets of darts together for Max Buchholz and his wife at Pixels Arcade Taproom in San Rafael, Calif. on Friday, June 1, 2024. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)
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