(Editor's note: Today Newsmakers presents an op-ed by former Santa Barbara Council member and Mayor Hal Conklin outlining a community-based, strategic approach to economic development that recognizes the crucial importance of cultivating and nurturing the city's future business tax base. Newsmakers welcomes fact-based opinion pieces about local issues from all political perspectives).
I am often asked, “What is the city doing about State Street?
When I respond with a counter question - “What do you want to happen to State Street?” - I get one confusing answer after another.
Most of the time, people just want to know, what is the City’s PLAN for the future of the downtown. My answer is always the same. What plan? I don’t think the City has one.
The need for economic planning. Many cities the size of Santa Barbara have either an internal Economic Development Department, or an on-going partnership with the business community to implement a long-term vision for their community’s economic well-being.
If for no other reason, it often comes down to the City Council wanting to know what their long-term tax base is going to be so they can plan out public safety and other services for their citizens.
For 40 years Santa Barbara had a Redevelopment Agency (RDA) that had a full-time staff focused on these kinds of questions.
We also had a tax base that allowed them to invest in the future of the community. Paseo Nuevo may have been the RDA’s biggest project in the 1980’s, but they also invested in restoring the Train Station, narrowing and beautifying the streets of Old Town, building parking garages, helping to stabilize the “cultural district” and restoring the Granada Theater, amid a host of smaller improvements.
A decade ago California's Supreme Court ruled against the formation of Redevelopment Agencies in cities throughout California and dissolved their taxing authority.
With it, there was a dissolution of any long-term plan for the economic stability of State Street. While many larger and smaller cities reformed their city structures to build “economic planning departments” into their staffing, Santa Barbara made the somewhat misguided decision to forego creating a team of people to create a roadmap to the future.
If you don’t have a map to tell you where you are going, how will you know when you have arrived?
During the last third of the 20th Century the City Council took for granted that the RDA would have a new or revised plan to share with the community every few months.
Now, after two decades of its absence, the current City Council has never experienced having that kind of resource at their fingertips, and as a result, they don’t know what they don’t know.
The need for community leadership. One fact is true about any planning from the last 100 years: The people who will be remembered for making a difference in the economic stability, look and feel of the community, were not Mayors or Council members.
Since the beginning of the 20th Century you could list double-spaced on a 3x5 card the number of elected officials who will be remembered for their visionary leadership.
Who we will remember are the likes of Bernard Hoffman, Pearl Chase, Vi Obern, and Michael Towbes - citizens who conjured up visions of grandeur for the city’s romantic past, its artistic present, or its potential economic strength as a center for tourism and educational institutions.
That spirit of civic activism is alive and well in Santa Barbara, even today. Rather than looking to leadership from City Hall, we need to turn our view back to the true leaders of the community, namely ourselves.
In the last few months there has been a revival of sorts throughout the downtown to bring community voices together to speak a plan into existence. This is not meant to “fight City Hall”; rather the real leaders of the community are inviting City Hall to walk alongside them in a partnership to build out the next chapter of downtown’s history.
Earlier this year a group of about 100 community members began meeting in small ad-hoc groups to form plans for the future of Santa Barbara.
Under the banner of the Santa Barbara Leadership Team, these people represent multiple interests: property owners, merchants, architects and visionaries, voices for cultural and historical preservation, transportation and housing advocates, millennials and seniors, family and faith leaders – all united in a conversation towards a common future.
They came up with 10 key areas of interest to be achieved between now and the year 2030. I call it their “10-2030 Plan”.
First things first. What is Number One on the list? Creating a “21st Century Economic Plan” for the next 20 years.
Beyond economic planning, they also want to streamline our governmental processes while maintaining our historic architecture and community values. Preservation and efficiency are not mutually exclusive.
For a community that prides itself on historical preservation, we are also the “poster child” for inefficient bureaucracy. When that kind of cancer takes root in the bones of government, sooner or later there will be a crippling collapse in trust and a push for radical surgery.
It is heartening to see so many young millennials getting involved in the process. Every week you can find dozens of these folks sitting in places like the Handlebar Roasting Company on Canon Perdido St. talking about what Santa Barbara needs to become in order to save itself.
This is the next generation of Santa Barbarans who will take up the mantle of leadership going forward.
We need everyone in this army. If you want to join up, let us know at: email@example.com.
Images: Hal Conklin; Paseo Nuevo; Pearl Chase; 2030? (architecture2030.org).