“We’re honoring our history and modernizing our future.”
Derek Kirk’s got his hands full—and he couldn’t be happier. Newly appointed to serve at the helm of the Atascadero Chamber of Commerce, not only does Derek bring experience, education and talent from prior positions in communities small and large; he’s brimming over with enthusiasm about developing Atascadero’s potential as a vibrant place to live, play, work and visit.
“The good news is that Atascadero is still affordable,” he says. “We have attractive space and potential for businesses to make something happen.” While Derek points out that Atascadero is actually quite a large town geographically—the business corridor along the 101 freeway is seven and a half miles long—the downtown is in the Chamber’s sights right now as business owners, the Chamber and the City collaborate on how the district can capitalize on its assets and become a “draw” for the entire community.
Known as the “Colony District,” the historic downtown is ripe for a renaissance. With its quaint and attractive setting, striking architecture, an influx of new businesses, popular activities and events, Derek says the seeds of success are already planted. “We’d like to see housing in the mix,” he said noting that the La Plaza project (pending expected Council approval in April) facing the Sunken Gardens along El Camino Real will offer mixed use, first-floor retail, office and condominium spaces.
Derek, who came on board in January, said he believes the Chamber’s role is to empower the community through assisting businesses, working on business attraction and retention and providing information and resources crucial to success. “We have 580 members and we want them all to stay in business,” he said. “Historically, it appears there have been a lot of starts and stops in past efforts to revitalize and allow businesses to thrive. My goal is to ensure we don’t stop anymore.”
Only four months on the job and Derek’s clearly on track with the task, though it’s not surprising—he’s no newcomer to the world of how a Chamber of Commerce works. His first job with a Chamber was in Porterville, CA while he was in high school. For four years, young Derek served as an intern where he helped business owners connect with high school talent and provide workplace learning opportunities—he saw this as a win-win where students would be employed and businesses would have an end product that they were proud of. He also sold memberships, worked events and, he says, “I fell in love with what a Chamber can do for a business community.”
Derek went on to attend Point Loma Nazarene University where he obtained his B.A. in Political Science and worked during that time as an Admissions and Support Specialist and after graduating, as Alumni Communications Coordinator. From there, he was hired as Director of Community and Government Relations for the North Orange County Chamber of Commerce in Fullerton, the largest business organization in the region with more than 2,500 members in nine cities. He says the wide-ranging experiences reinforced his desire to work in an industry where he feels he can play a vital role in community and business success. When he heard about the opening for a Chamber president in Atascadero, he felt it would be a good fit and applied for the job.
Anticipating a move, Derek and his wife Viviane drove up for a close look at the community. Although Derek was already familiar with the area from his Porterville days and visits to the coast, it was Viviane’s first time to see the town and they made the most of it. After checking out events like Light Up the Downtown and the Art and Wine Tour, walking around Atascadero Lake and attending a local church service, they made the decision to “plant ourselves here.” Soon afterward, Derek learned he was hired and wasted no time relocating though he still commutes down south weekends while his wife finishes up her Masters Degree in Social Work (MSW) at Cal State Fullerton. “I feel like I’m living where I’m supposed to be vacationing,” he laughed.
Derek says he enjoyed living in Porterville because of its small-town feel. “Even though its population is about 65,000, it’s still very community-based with many small businesses. That may be why I’m attracted to Atascadero,” he said. The key to making it all work, says Derek, “is to continue to be the local small-town Chamber while providing a 21st century purpose and value to our community.”
Recently a change in zoning laws for the downtown area advanced the opportunity to increase foot traffic and vitality by allowing only retail and small restaurants to occupy ground floor spaces. Professional office uses and housing are allowed on upper floors. “We want to develop a diverse economy that also serves as a driver for becoming a destination for visitors,” Derek said.
“We are also looking to connect the downtown to adjacent areas like the Colony Square which is where Galaxy Theatre and several shops and restaurants are located,” he said. To that end, the Chamber of Commerce plans to move its offices this June to a facility near the theatre area just over the new Centennial Bridge from City Hall. In a unique co-workspace setting, the Chamber will occupy 1,200 square feet of the building and BridgeWork—modeled after HotHouses popular in other downtowns—will occupy another 1,500 square feet offering conference rooms for rent and workspace for 20 business professionals. “I’m eager to see these efforts grow as a true economic base for Atascadero,” he said. “We’re giving it all we have right now.”
Another exciting opportunity for Derek and the Chamber to cultivate, he said, is the wave of young enterprisers who’ve opened for business in Atascadero. “Young people are entrepreneurial by nature,” he said. “Many of the new business owners are young people looking to make a difference in our downtown.” Derek’s also encouraged to learn a number of properties that have gone on the market recently—many owned by out-of-towners—are being purchased by local buyers, indicating their confidence in their town’s economy.
Besides economic development, the Chamber works with the City and other groups on projects like beautification and marketing and also events. Currently, they’re working with the downtown area while also paying attention to other areas of town that are amenable to development such as the large vacant parcel in north Atascadero once slated for a Walmart. Derek also welcomes the proposed addition of new sidewalks along Morro Road from El Camino Real to Portola Road, increasing the walkability to businesses that lie along the west side of town.
Looking ahead, Derek says he is excited about his new life in Atascadero. He and his wife are avid wine collectors who are looking forward to starting a garden and being involved in the Atascadero United Methodist Church once Viviane graduates this spring and joins her husband along with Wilbur, their 10-year-old Yorkie rescue. But Derek can’t contain his enthusiasm for the work that lies ahead as president of the Chamber. “There’s been a whole lot of work done prior to me; those before me really did a lot to get us where we are,” he said. “I’m the one who gets to take the ball into the end zone!”