The Gaslamp

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How about the Gaslamp? It was a San Diego eyesore for many years until some civic leaders decided something should be done. And public relations was the catalyst to make that something happen.

Economic boom and bust times make for colorful stories about San Diego’s downtown, many featuring the historic Gaslamp Quarter. From the first great real estate boom of the 1870’s, the area grew significantly from Alonzo Horton’s Fifth Avenue wharf. But the downturn to follow produced the Stingaree, a “restricted district” where criminal activity surrounding unchecked public drinking and brothels was ignored. It would be a long time before respectability would return to the neighborhood.

Fast forward to the early 1970’s and difficulties faced by San Diego’s new young mayor, Pete Wilson. The city was again suffering bad times. Wilson saw downtown’s sad condition as an opportunity to kick start the economy and produce a great city.

California law provided sound tools for redeveloping such troubled urban centers. Vision and good planning, plus a lot of faith and hard work, brought individuals, civic leaders, business people, developers and government officials together to champion and lead the PR effort.

Explaining the need to restore the Gaslamp Quarter in those days was difficult. Few people cared or even went south of Broadway on Fifth Avenue. It was a rather “seedy” place; bars and adult entertainment abounded. But the buildings, even in their rundown state, were beautiful – and so full of valuable San Diego architecture and history. It would take bold action to spark a turnaround. Mayor Wilson proposed a controversial ordinance which could, in essence, limit adult entertainment uses and reduce their numbers over the years.

To introduce Wilson’s ordinance to the public, a well-attended press conference put together by PR professionals Donna Alm and Larry Thomas was staged in front of a Fifth Avenue adult-book store notorious for more than reading material. The mayor explained the issue and plans for the restoration of this 16 ½ blocks, then invited all inside to view adult entertainment firsthand. That glimpse of items, photos, movies, etc. provided “the stuff that sells newspapers.” Television, radio and newspapers carried the story — and the ordinance became law.

Today, two remaining adult stores are overshadowed by beautifully restored historic buildings and new ones that provide homes, offices, retail, entertainment and dining for the enjoyment of today’s and future generations. It is now a major tourist attraction.

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