Several years ago, a delegation of Santa Rosa city officials and business leaders traveled to San Luis Obispo to see what it takes to build a vibrant downtown. The Central California city is usually placed on the short list of cities that have figured out how to maintain a successful downtown in the era of big-box stores and online retail.

The Downtown Market in Santa Rosa, for example, was borrowed from San Luis Obispo’s Thursday Night Market. San Luis Obispo also has a river walk with stores and restaurants along the river bank – something Santa Rosa hopes to emulate if the city reclaims Santa Rosa Creek (which now runs under City Hall).

On Saturday, while driving home from Southern California, I took a walk through downtown San Luis Obispo to see what all the fuss is about.

First impressions: There’s a lot to like about San Luis Obispo. It’s lively, there’s a variety of shops, and a small shopping mall is integrated into the design of the downtown (unlike the fortress that divides downtown Santa Rosa). There are lovely and clean tree-lined streets, and restaurants and businesses along the river. On this Saturday, the sidewalks and the most popular restaurants were buzzing with Cal Poly students and their families just arrived for the start of a new quarter.

Still, San Luis Obispo deals with problems known to most cities.  There were some empty store fronts – and some empty stores. Bathrooms in the city center were closed, a sign explained, “due to increasing vandalism.” Some buildings carried plaques that warned: “This is unreinforced masonry building. You may not be safe insider or near. . .  during an earthquake.”

Based on a short visit, it wouldn’t fair to try and compare San Luis Obispo and Santa Rosa. Still, the visit was a reminder that the task of maintaining a vibrant downtown is never simple, especially when economic times are tough and consumers choose big-box stores over the small businesses that are the life blood of any downtown.