The Third Street Promenade (File photo)

Mayor Ted Winterer is urging other city leaders to think big when it comes to the technological headwinds facing the local economy.

After hearing an extensive presentation from the City’s Director of Housing and Economic Development, Andy Agle, on the upcoming ‘retail apocalypse’ that will hit the Promenade, the impact of telecommuting on leased office space, artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles, Winterer expressed concern staff isn’t thinking broad enough.

“I’m concerned that we are already looking very short term from the comments heard on the dais,” Winterer said. “We’ve talked about the decline of retail and maybe the answer is more music downtown. I think it would be prudent to look broader and see what else is on the horizon.”

Winterer says he would be interested in organizing a speaker series composed of futurists, technology leaders and other experts to better inform city leaders of rapid changes in technology and how they will change society.  The topics could include drones, climate change, or even the decline of the middle class as computers replace more and more skilled jobs.

“I think there’s too much discussion on the city’s fiscal future and not enough discussion on the broader economy of the city and the way it will impact our residents and our visitors and our businesses,” Winterer said.

While the Mayor focuses on broader issues that will likely materialize down the line, staff members and businesses on The Promenade are worried about systemic problems they are facing now, particularly the explosion of online sales.  The shift to online shopping not only hurts the City’s tax base but also threatens the popularity of The Third Street Promenade, a major tourist attraction and the hub of downtown life.

“If the retail apocalypse – which is what experts are using to call the decline in in-store retail sales – if that happens, the downtown and commercial corridors could lose vitality, pedestrian activity and sense of place,” Agle said.

The way people are using the downtown area has already “shifted dramatically,” according to Kathleen Rawson with Downtown Santa Monica Inc. Envisioning a new purpose for the pedestrian-friendly street is now a top priority for the board when considering new tenants.  Both Councilmembers Kevin McKeown and Tony Vazquez suggested marijuana tourism or live music could eventually enliven empty storefronts.  The Council is scheduled to discuss what (if any) marijuana businesses to allow in the city at their Oct. 10 meeting.

Multiple Councilmembers also suggested the City should focus on system changes in the way government works to make the city more nimble to the exponential changes in technology.

“We need to look within our community for people who aren’t the usual suspects…who are thinking about things in a different way than we are thinking about them,” Councilmember Sue Himmelrich said.

City Manager Rick Cole promised to come back to the Council with a plan based on their suggestions at last week’s meeting.

“I think a lot of new companies, and a lot of potential investors, as well as entrepreneurs, will see this as a place to make a bet,” Cole said.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press