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Franchise Burger Revenues Versus Small Town Charm

Feb 2, 2010

Winters one of the most charming towns in the Central Valley is considering whether to accept the town's first franchise fast-food outlet. I almost never take sides in these things, but I'm hoping the city's leaders say no to the proposed Burger King.

It wasn't too long ago that Winters was little more than a struggling Yolo County farm town. In recent years, though, civic leaders, property owners and merchants have revitalized the downtown. It's now a lively community center that features galleries and boutiques for visitors, shops and services oriented to locals, and enough variety in restaurants and watering holes to satisfy just about everybody. Winters even snagged The Palms several years back, when the venerable live music venue relocated from Davis.

When we rated small city downtowns in the Central Valley two years ago, we listed Winters in the "others of note" section. If I could do that list over again, I'd place Winters and Exeter in the top tier, and I'd bump Lodi down a notch or two. (When we compiled our list, downtown Lodi seemed on the verge of really big things, almost none of which have come together.)

You'd never know anything about the rise of Winters as a vibrant town if all you did was drive through on the I-505 freeway, which is a shortcut for people driving to and from the Bay Area. Except for a lone gas station at the offramp, Winters has no presence on I-505, even though the city limits extend to the freeway. If you want to grab something to eat or a decent cup of coffee, you've got to get off the freeway, drive a short distance into town and then gasp! get out of your car and walk into a non-franchise operation.

A few years ago, I wrote about how swell it is for people like me who need strong coffee for frequent long-distance drives that so many towns have an instantly identifiable Starbucks. But I still believe that having the same darn Starbucks store everywhere is bad for people who actually live in those towns.

For some reason, Winters has escaped this phenomenon. Yes, the town does have a Subway, a Roundtable and a Pizza Factory. But it doesn't have the usual array of franchise boxes and parking lots jammed against the freeway ramps. That sets Winters apart in the Central Valley.

Of course, cities can't pay police officers or pave streets with charm. Cities need actual money, and that's one of the biggest arguments for the Burger King/76 gas station (Eat here, get gas!) project proposed by Singh's Foodservice. A busy stop on the interstate can produce meaningful revenue for a small town such as Winters. And having freeway ramps full of franchise offerings doesn't necessarily toll the death bell for a downtown. Our favorite Central Valley small city downtown is nearby Woodland, whose I-5 freeway ramps offer all the usual McFood.

Still, Winters feels a little fragile. If the drive-through burger joint/gas station is the start of a new freeway-oriented commercial district, the implications for the rest of town are not good. Such is the nature of "fiscalized" land use planning. Revenue needs often trump long-term community building.

Sounds like a decision on the Burger King is still a little ways off. If Winters says no, I promise I'll do my part by finding my way to Steady Eddy's for a sandwich and cup of coffee the next time I'm driving down I-505. We'll all be better off.

- Paul Shigley