Vallejo, American Canyon and Benicia merchants as well as experts bullish about the new year By Rachel Raskin-Zrihen / Times-Herald Posted: 12/29/2011 01:00:47 AM PST As the area and the nation struggled through another recession year, regional business leaders searched for signs of recovery and strategized ways of turning things around. The Vallejo Chamber of Commerce's Rich Curtola said the number of business closures in Vallejo in 2011 probably closely matched the number that opened. "I think the most important things are the lessons we've learned from this," he said. "We know we have to pay attention, and work, and to literally take care of business." American Canyon Chamber of Commerce president Susan Lane said some businesses in town are "operating with reduced staff with less resources. But they are surviving." That city has seen several new businesses take root this year, including Del Monte Meats, GNC, Walgreens, Mark's Sports Bistro and Wellness Marketplace Napa Valley. Also Napa Junction III was approved this year for more than 140,000 square feet of new shopping space. Benicia Main Street's Nancy Martinez said 2011 was an improvement over last year for many downtown businesses. "They've had their challenges with this economy, but some are doing really well," she said. "Mostly the ones keeping consistent hours." The downtown is at 97 percent occupancy at street level, compared to 92 percent last year, Martinez said. "Things are improving," she said. "It's baby steps, but 2011 was better for many of the merchants here than 2010." The year started out badly in Vallejo, with the sudden closure of the 21-year old Lyon's restaurant in January. In August, the Admiral Callaghan Lane site was renovated and reopened as a Black Bear Diner, satisfying a hungry crowd. Also in January, Vallejo's Harley Davidson dealership closed, after nearly 100 years in business. The property at Sonoma and York streets remains empty. Despite these setbacks, an economic think tank in January predicted a slow economic ascent for the region, and things started looking slightly up in February, when three sisters opened Hummingbird Bakery & Dessert Bar on Vallejo's Springs Road near Oakwood Avenue.Coffee drinkers may remember March as the month coffee prices rose to the point that some devotees considered quitting or switching to tea. In July, a Mi Pueblo Food Center opened in the newly remodeled Solano 80 Center, which continues to undergo construction. Vallejo's Old Navy store closed in August, though a combination Toys 'R' Us/ Babies 'R' Us is scheduled to open by Fall in that space and the one abandoned by Cost Plus World Market in 2009. Vallejo lost its last Toys 'R' Us store in 2006. Also in August, rail service officially returned to Mare Island with Washington-Based Tri-City & Olympia Railroad, which plans to update the island's rail infrastructure and help it reach its economic driver potential. And in December, Blu Homes opened a pre-fab home-building plant on the island. Also in December, Ogden Imports, a 33-year-old Vallejo auto dealership, closed for good when plans to sell and repair used cars there didn't pan out. An ongoing controversy erupted in October over the possibility of a WinCo market taking over the Redwood Street Elk's Lodge property. Meanwhile, though declining from around 13 percent to just under 11 percent over the year, unemployment rates in Vallejo and American Canyon remained their respective county's highest, even as business and civic leaders took steps to try and turn the tide. Outside-the-box marketing ideas began paying off as tourism in the area reportedly started picking up this year. In June, after lowering many of its permit fees, Vallejo simplified the permitting process with a one-stop area at City Hall, Vallejo's interim city manager in October, vowed to make City Hall more business friendly and a business advocacy group formed in September hoping to improve the business climate in town. American Canyon city officials announced a business license amnesty, to kick in with the new year, to coincide with a new Code Enforcement effort to identify businesses operating under the radar. And even as American Canyon went to war with its only card room over its owners' refusal to impose a voter-approved $2 per person admission tax -- trading threats, protests and legal filings -- city officials ordered a study on how best to develop the former limestone quarry "ruins," designated for creating the city's downtown. Contact staff writer Rachel Raskin-Zrihen at (707) 553-6824 or firstname.lastname@example.org.