David Codding fondly recalls pedaling his bike as a kid from his home near the old Community Hospital in Lomita Heights, a subdivision his father built, all the way to Montgomery Village, where he would usually score a chocolate éclair at Village Bakery. As the son of Hugh Codding, the shopping center’s founder and builder, David, now 66, has spent most of his life in the orbit of Montgomery Village, including running operations there for the past 40 years, together with his wife, Melissa, for the last 25 years.
The venerable open-air shopping center celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2020, a testament to its stature as not only a thriving retail destination, but as a community hub and gathering place. The center is 20 acres in size, and the numerous buildings bounded on the north by Montgomery Drive and on the south by Patio Court encompass approximately 284,000 square feet of gross leasable space.
“Our longest tenant is the U.S. Postal Service,” says David. “That was Dad’s main objective at the time, to get a post office in almost all of the shopping centers he built, because everyone went to their post office back in the day.” Exchange Bank, he adds, was the first bank to have a branch in Montgomery Village.
The center has come “full circle” in its 70 years, says David. “It began as a basic shopping center that Dad constructed for the homeowners who bought the houses he built in the neighborhood for $8,000 to $9,000. It provided for basic needs, but my stepmom, Nell, helped to transform it into a higher-end center with more specialty stores and more fashion.”
Nell was Hugh Codding’s second wife and an integral member of the Codding business team, overseeing most of the office operations and financial transactions with the merchants. “The way Melissa and I operate today is similar to the way Nell and my dad ran Codding Enterprises and Montgomery Village,” says David. “Melissa handles a lot of the same things Nell once did, while I’m the contractor, like my dad, who oversees remodeling and makes the deals with tenants. I handle the nuts and bolts of the leases, then turn it over to Melissa, who is not only a paralegal, but a marketing professional. We’re a good team, and I couldn’t do this without her.”
“David makes the deals, and I have to be certain there is money for the remodels or complete build-outs,” adds Melissa, who oversees all bookkeeping and marketing for the center, among many other duties.
Department store shuffle
Seventy years of commerce have seen many stores come and go in Montgomery Village. The oldest continually operating retailer in the center is the Lucky grocery store, which first opened in late 1961. W.T. Grant was the first department store, housed where Ross Dress for Less is now located. After W.T. Grant moved out, and he couldn’t find another store that was interested in moving in, Hugh Codding took a chance on an up-and-coming chain called Mervyn’s.
“Mervin Morris, the owner of Mervyn’s, worked out a deal with Dad, Nell and me that they would set up his lease initially as a percentage-only type,” explains David. “Mervin said he’d build up the business and make it profitable, and it turned out to be fantastic. That Mervyn’s store was generating $16 million to $20 million in annual sales, and that was some 30 years ago.”
Mervyn’s eventually moved from Montgomery Village into the recently-opened Santa Rosa Plaza indoor mall downtown, where it could expand into 100,000 square feet. “Then a new chain called Ross Dress for Less showed interest in taking over the old Mervyn’s space, which had sat vacant for awhile,” he adds. “Dad and I made the deal with Stuart Moldaw, and Ross has been there ever since. And the Ross company loves its Montgomery Village store. It’s big—a little over 40,000 square feet, and it ranks third or fourth in the entire chain for sales volume.” (More than 1,400 Ross stores operate in 33 states.)
Today, there are approximately 70 stores, restaurants, banks and services in the shopping center, 15 dining venues and five bank branches. “We pride ourselves on our independence as a locally-owned and operated shopping center, and we only want to lease to the better chain stores,” says David. “The basic rule of thumb is we don’t lease to discounters, per se. We have higher-end stores and don’t want to bring in discount merchants that would undercut or rob business from others.” The exception to the rule is Ross, he says, which has been highly successful in its space for nearly three decades. He considers Ross much like a department store because of its larger size and expanded selection of merchandise.
The Coddings give considerable thought to the variety of boutique shops, stores and services at Montgomery Village. “We always look at what stores and services will complement what is already here, what we may be lacking, and what customers are asking for,” says Melissa. “We get requests from customers for store suggestions and welcome their input. We can even give them a finder’s fee if a negotiation works out with a merchant that leads to a signed lease and a new open business in the Village.”
She points to a recent lease signing for a new florist, M Designs, which was scheduled to open by November 7. It fills the void left by another florist, Flowerland, that exited the center some time ago. “David first approached a different florist about moving into the Village, but it wasn’t going to work out for them. But they recommended he check with another florist [Maria Chesmore of M Designs] to see if she was interested in opening a store in the center. She was, and we signed the lease. For bringing us that successful referral, we gave the first florist we approached a very nice finder’s fee to show our appreciation.”
Though the layout and design of Montgomery Village is 70 years old, David says the concept has been copied elsewhere as a smart way to build a modern and community-oriented shopping center that’s easy and pleasant to leisurely walk and dine. “This is the type of shopping center where you can park most of the time right in front of the store or restaurant you’re here to visit,” adds Melissa, as opposed to sprawling indoor malls where parking can be far away in a huge open lot, or parking structure.
The Classic Duck, a long-time retailer, moved into Montgomery Village in 2008 after many years in Coddingtown Mall. “Our store has always done well here,” says the owner, Lynette Boisvert. “When my lease at Coddingtown was no longer affordable, I looked around for places to move and had four possibilities. Not only was Montgomery Village the best choice, but David Codding was just wonderful to work with. He and Melissa are very generous and really do support their merchants. They are particularly generous with their build-outs for new tenants, absorbing those costs when other landlords might not. Both of them work really hard to keep the center running smoothly.”
Hugh Codding’s philosophy, says David, was to help support merchants. “We don’t like vacancies, and we want to keep our tenants here.” So if a merchant is struggling, the Coddings put them on a percentage-only lease arrangement. “Because if they can’t make the sales, you can’t get blood out of a turnip. A mall owner such as Simon Property Group [Santa Rosa Plaza] has an entirely different business model than us. Simon needs a fixed amount of income to satisfy its shareholders. Montgomery Village is a family-owned shopping center, and our merchants like dealing directly with us. Our merchants are just like family, and we treat them all like family.”
One of the shopping center’s original tenants, Fireside Stationery, closed this year. “It wasn’t related to COVID-19,” says Melissa. “The current owners just wanted to retire. I will miss having a Hallmark Gold Crown store in the Village. I can’t tell you how many collectible ornaments I have gotten over the years at Fireside!”
The challenges of COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions made 2020 a particularly difficult year for many merchants. “We’ve renegotiated the leases of just about every tenant, and every deal is different,” says David. “Leases for the independent merchants are handled differently than for the chain stores. Some minimum-rent tenants were put on percentage rent-only and have waived their rents or deferred them for awhile. Even for our own business operations, we applied for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan to help with our own payroll and employee benefits,” he adds. “We also have a loan with Exchange Bank, and they let us defer those payments for three months. Everybody is helping everybody else as best they can.”
Concerts scaled back
The weekly free live music concerts that have drawn thousands to the shopping center every summer for 10 years were also a COVID casualty. The first concert in the Village Court area of the center was staged in 2009, as a celebration of Earth Day.
“I was first approached by Montgomery Village about suggestions for a live band for that event,” explains local classic-rock radio personality Mike Watermann, also a long-time drummer for numerous Bay Area bands. “At that time I was playing with the tribute band the Unauthorized Rolling Stones, so we hired them for the show. David Codding loved them so much they asked me how we could keep putting on more concerts.”
Watermann was playing drums in three different bands at the time, and he booked them all to perform that first summer, then reached out to even more bands to fill the demand. “It was a shorter season then, from the middle of June to August, but we gradually expanded it every year.” By 2010, the music season encompassed Saturday and Sunday shows lasting from May through September, together with occasional Thursday night concerts. Watermann served as the master of ceremonies for most of the shows, and frequently sat in on drums with many of the bands.
The concerts, he says, are something the Coddings wanted to do for the community, to bring fans of live rock, pop and jazz into Montgomery Village who may not have visited it before, and there was little financial gain directly for the shopping center.
The bands for the 2020 concert season had all been booked by last December, Watermann says, but this March when the coronavirus lockdowns began, he had to start calling the musicians with the bad news. “First we cancelled the May and June concerts, intending to decide month by month if more shows would need to be cancelled if crowd restrictions hadn’t been lifted. It was a blow to the nonprofits that benefitted from food and beverage sales at each of those concerts every year, which drew hundreds of people.”
When it appeared no end was in sight for restrictions on large gatherings, Watermann and Melissa Codding teamed up to put on eight smaller, unpublicized Sunday concerts this summer in Village Court. Only a few musicians at a time performed, such as an acoustic duo that included members of Petty Theft, a popular Tom Petty tribute band, and Beatles tribute The Sun Kings, and another show with a stripped-down Elton John tribute band, among others. Music lovers who wanted to see one of the shows were required to make reservations to dine at either Monti’s or Jewelz’ Kitchen restaurants, where they were asked to remain seated at their tables and not approach the stage. No dancing was allowed. One show had to be postponed because of excessive wildfire smoke.
“Instead of spending money on concerts and our other events this year, we spent money to advertise and market our merchants,” says Melissa. At press time, with no way of knowing when restrictions on crowds will be loosened or lifted in Sonoma County, Watermann and the Coddings were taking a wait-and-see approach to booking bands for the center’s 2021 concert season.
Holiday season optimism
In mid-October, the Coddings were focused on retooling their traditional holiday events at the shopping center for social distancing and customer safety. “Our holiday stroll is easy to still put on, and our Secret Santa Marathon and Hannukah Festival,” says Melissa. “We’re figuring out how to safely do photos with Santa Claus. There will be carolers out in the evenings, but instead of roaming they will stand in one location to sing, using stanchions to ensure social distancing, then put on their masks and move to another area. The holidays will look a little different, but we’ll be including as many of our regular features as we can.”
David is also upbeat about the holiday season. “It will be terrific. People have been cooped up for so long and will want to get out and shop and dine. I’m hearing predictions that retail will do well later this year.”
Most Saturday mornings, the Coddings hop on board their small, two-seater plane and fly to Mendocino County, where David, a pilot, has a ranch. “It takes about 20 minutes to get there, and we have a little grass airstrip. We go feed the deer and the wild turkeys and wild pigs. We consider it a wildlife sanctuary, and it’s a perfect escape,” says Melissa.
The Coddings also make time to relax by watching TV together in the evenings, she says. “We love the old Perry Mason and Gunsmoke shows, and John Wayne movies—and a few live action Disney movies, too! Melissa adds. “We also take walks and ride our bikes. When the shelter-in-place order began in the spring and we couldn’t go out to Sunday brunch, I made a lot of waffles,” Melissa adds. “I can’t tell you how many waffle recipes I tried, and I also searched out the best maple syrups I could find. We definitely make time for ourselves, but we’re still at Montgomery Village seven days a week,” she adds. “Everybody sees us, knows us and talks to us. Plus, our office door is always open.”