For most of the recent past, Pico Boulevard has been known here primarily as one of the two least lovely streets in Santa Monica. The other one being, of course, Lincoln Boulevard, which, now that Pico has been beautified by medians, greenery, and artsy new businesses, stands alone in all its uglified glory. Business owners on that strand of needed but not-so-pretty businesses might want to take a look at the Pico Improvement Organization (PIO), and the small business owners who’ve made Pico a downright personable place to be. The PIO’s latest effort is “Passport to Pico,” a discount card in the vein of the KCRW subscriber card, made freely available to approximately 10,500 residents living in the area surrounding Pico Boulevard – parts of Ocean Park and Sunset Park, south-eastern Santa Monica, and of course, Pico Neighborhood. There’s much talk about Pico Neighborhood in the Chambers of City Hall – whether it be about gang abatement, park upgrades, safety in the streets or the size and shape of the boulevard’s new lampposts – the last multi-cultural, multi-class neighborhood in Santa Monica is the topic of many a conversation. Unfortunately for local businesses, though, the talk is almost never about commerce. That’s where the PIO comes in. The Pico Improvement Organization is one of several Business Improvement Districts of the City of Santa Monica. It’s called “PIO” instead of the more intuitive (and expected) PBID, as an homage to Pio Pico, the last governor of Mexican California and the man for whom for whom the boulevard was named. As are all BIDS in Santa Monica, the PIO is supported through monies collected from its neighborhood business owners – in this case approximately 300 “Pico merchants” whose businesses line the street — as a portion of their business license tax and fees. Like the neighborhood, boulevard and man for which it’s named, the PIO is proud to be just a little bit different from the boring old norm. Most of its businesses are family-owned and many are “one-of-a-kind” ventures. And its members see Passport to Pico as a way to share that difference with its most logical customers – its direct neighbors. Passport to Pico packages will arrive in area mailboxes this week. Spanning 34 blocks in the southern section of town, and running through Santa Monica from the beach to the eastern border. Pico Boulevard is not necessarily an easy sell as shopping district. It’s not convenient to walk around like the Promenade or Main Street, nor does it have a particular “style,” like Montana Avenue. No, like its cousin Lincoln Boulevard., Pico is filled with mostly practical, functional, quirky, quiet and needed businesses – a wide variety of services and stuff that defies categorization and refuses a convenient theme. To make matters more complex, explains PIO Board Chair and retired Santa Monica College professor, Charlie Donaldson, much of the street-front of Pico Boulevard is actually non-business space – Santa Monica High School and Westlawn Cemetery to the west; SMC, Virginia Avenue Park, and the Yvonne Burke/Venice Family Clinic to the east. “And there is very little parking on the street,” Donaldson adds, pointing out what may be the biggest ongoing problem for Pico business owners – and local neighbors. A problem that residents and businesses have been hashing out for years, and a problem that PIO members hope the Passport can begin to solve. “Yes, it’s hard for people to park,” says Donaldson, “but [the Passport holders] live right next door to us. They’ll be able to walk [to the local businesses] and learn what’s here.” And there’s a lot. On Pico, you’ll find rare videos and DVDs at Vidiots – one of the best places to find documentary and foreign rentals in the country. You’ll find two most luxurious (and pricey) resort hotels at its western end, but you’ll also find, as Donaldson mentions, “a half-dozen massage parlors.” There are also three bakeries on Pico, six accountants, 10 beauty salons, 37 restaurants, a structural engineer (Ishler Design & Engineering Associates), a bicycle repair shop (The Bicycle Ambulance), and a place where you can learn to snowboard on dry land (Virtual Snow LA) – just to name a few of its wildly varied storefronts. Along with their Passports, residents will receive a booklet that lists all members of the PIO, including the over 60 businesses that offer discounts through the card. (Discounts differ from business to business, and are noted in the brochure.) According to the PIO website, new businesses regularly join the campaign, and the site can be used to check up on additions or changes to the available discounts.Donaldson, one of two PIO members who represent the concerns of area residents, explains that the goal of the Passport to Pico program is really twofold. Besides encouraging residents to “check out” Pico’s shopping and errand running destinations, the PIO sees the Passport discounts as a way to, “tighten ties between commercial neighbors and residential neighbors.” As it says on Passport to Pico materials, “When neighbors do business with neighbors, everyone wins: residents save gas and local merchants are more prosperous.” For more information on the PIO visit: www.picoblvd.org.
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