Revitalizing Atascadero

Hometown Heroes, On the Road, People, Travel Destinations
on May 13, 2001

The Spanish word Atascadero roughly translates to a place where one gets stuck, and the meaning was becoming perilously close to reality for the California town of 24,263, located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angelesuntil David Weyrich came along.

Founded by E. G. Lewis, a dried-fruit entrepreneur who came to the area during World War I with the idea of developing Atascadero as a model community, the town kicked and bucked but never quite charged ahead in the way Lewis envisioned.

By 1987, Atascaderos only hotelthe once-elegant Carlton, completed in 1929stood empty and derelict, its neighbors now an adult-book store, tavern, resale shops, used car-and-muffler dealer, and empty lots.

When the post office, police station, and library pulled out of what was then downtown in the mid-1980s, little was left. The National Trust for Historic Preservation had helped revitalize the downtown centers of nearby Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo through its Main Street programbut while Atascadero residents had been talking of redevelopment for years, the plans remained dormant.

At the turn of 2000, Atascadero struggled to shed its Rip Van Winkle image, gearing up to create a viable city center. But the five square blocks earmarked for downtown refurbishment desperately needed a commercial anchor.

Enter David Weyrich, a self-effacing, self-made, and quick-witted 47-year-old millionaire from neighboring Paso Robles. A towering physical presence, Weyrich jokes that the only thing Ive ever failed at is keeping slim. A myriad mix of business wizard, philanthropist, and devout Christian, Weyrich has the power, wealth, and self-conviction to do things his way. The two newspapers he owns are run with a clearly defined missionto impart news coverage thats suitable for everyone to read, including kids.

Everybody knows were conservative and pro-family, says Weyrich, father of eight and a devout Catholic who gives extravagantly to church charities and his own Weyrich Family Foundation.

Like Lewis, the citys founder, Weyrich also has a dream for Atascadero.

I see the Carlton (hotel) as a catalyst to revitalize the towns long main street and replenish it as a corridor that will attract land speculation, upscale restaurants, and new businesses, he says. By restoring this treasure to its original splendor, Atascadero could attract tourists traveling between San Francisco and Santa Barbara. The city has wanted this for years, and it was time to step up and take a swing.

With funds from profitable businesses, such as his Martin & Weyrich Winery in Paso Robles, Weyrich didnt have to depend on market analyses to invent Atascaderos future. In the real-life version of Build it, and they will come, Weyrich decided to give the people what they wanted.

He and his partners bought the Carlton and negotiated downtown improvements with the citys redevelopment agency. A four- to five-star hotel, restaurants, bakery, and lounge are due for completion in 2002.

Thats just fine with locals who thought the Carlton would never be more than a ghost again.

We squabble about a lot of things in this town, but theres no squabbling about the Carlton, says Lon Allen, president of the Atascadero Historical Society and editor of the Atascadero News. It will be the flagship for the revitalization of downtown, with improvements like a landscaped parking facility, new sidewalks, lights, and a raised landscape median down El Camino Real tied to its completion.

Weyrich admits he may be either a fool or a visionary. With expenses mountingit took an unanticipated additional $100,000 to preserve the Carltons exterior wallshe says investment to date is $12 million, considerably more than planned. Looking ahead to expansion of the citys infrastructure to include construction of a playhouse, downtown restoration, and the relocation of city services such as the library, Weyrich sees the Carlton as breathing life into redevelopment and bringing the people together.

The Carlton, he says, could make Atascadero a destination.