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Sep 17th
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Great and Small

news_housingSanta Cruz City Redevelopment Agency rises above budget nightmares and other cultural anomalies
The Santa Cruz City Redevelopment Agency probably won’t wash your car. It’s highly unlikely that they’ll make you dinner or mow your lawn or clean out your rain gutters. But you may have to forgive them that, because they’re seriously busy doing everything else.

On the surface, the agency’s mission is pretty simple. Like other redevelopment agencies throughout California, it exists as a government entity to create and support economic development programs and good urban planning, to eliminate blight, and to create affordable low-income housing. But in practice, that explanation of its impact on the economic and cultural life of Santa Cruz is about as appropriate as saying that water is kind of wet, or that the Super Bowl is somewhat important to football fans. It approaches the truth, but the scale is all wrong.

“Really, the Santa Cruz that we have today wouldn’t look the same without the Redevelopment Agency,” says former mayor and current City Councilmember Ryan Coonerty. “It rebuilt downtown. The beautification that’s gone on in the Eastside—that’s really made the Eastside come alive—is a product of the Redevelopment Agency. Our affordable housing is made possible by them. So is the Hope Services crew that cleans up downtown.”

The Tannery Arts Center was also the brainchild of the agency. So are the long-awaited upgrades to the Highway 1/Highway 9 intersection, the improvements to the San Lorenzo River levees, and the Nuevo Sol housing project, which provides housing for chronically homeless individuals, just to name a few more. The agency also assisted in bringing in the new modern art sculptures in downtown Santa Cruz. They’ve spruced up building facades all over town. They even made sure the lampposts and the street signs on Pacific Avenue are the same shade of green, just because it looks better. In short, Coonerty says, “it’s amazing the number of projects that the Redevelopment Agency sponsors that touch people’s lives on a daily basis.”

Founded in 1955, the agency’s original mission was to rebuild downtown following the devastating Great Flood. It was essentially inactive for the next few decades until 1989, when it was reformed, ironically enough, to rebuild downtown once again following the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which destroyed nearly 70 percent of that area. With the full name of the Santa Cruz Economic Development and Redevelopment Department, and under the guidance of Executive Director Bonnie Lipscomb, its mission has been to make Santa Cruz a better place for citizens and businesses alike. “We have very specific goals and objectives,” Lipscomb notes. “And we’re trying to leverage the limited dollars we have towards making projects happen in Santa Cruz.”

But in a time of county- and state-wide recession, making development happen is no mean feat. And it got a lot tougher earlier this month, when state legislators announced they would cut $3.7 million of agency funding, more than half of its annual budget, almost all of which is garnered through property taxes. But Coonerty says, “We haven’t given up on the money yet. We believe it was illegally taken. It’s our money. It’s not the state’s money to spend. They just happen to be in the best position to steal it.” The city hopes that a recent lawsuit against the state, as well as expected stimulus money from the federal government, will go a long way toward making up the difference.

But department employees will freely admit that it’s been a difficult year for Santa Cruz. “We were definitely impacted by the recession,” says Peter Koht, economic development coordinator. “Unemployment in the city in April was about 8.6 percent, 13 percent in county, 26 percent in Watsonville. A lot of people suffered and got laid off. A lot of my friends lost their jobs.”

Coonerty adds that the city has been “devastated.”

“We cut programs that we could never have imagined cutting: the Teen Center, the pool, the Beach Flats community center,” he says. “The massive cuts to local social service providers, the furloughs– it’s been absolutely brutal. And the economy’s been brutal to our local companies.”

Surprisingly, it’s not all bad. “We were remarkably resilient,” Koht says. “We lost businesses we cared about. But we’ve also used this time to regroup. We’ve had a lot of wins in a very difficult year macro-economically.”

Coonerty agrees. “I do think that we have programs and infrastructure in place that made the fall a little less steep and will make our recovery faster. In that way, I’m optimistic.”

Koht sees a huge amount of potential in technology-based businesses; he points out that there are already a surprising number operating here in town. “We’re really excited about start-ups in Santa Cruz,” he notes. “We’ve got a long history of innovation and entrepreneurship here. Your camera phone is from here. Your GPS and your iPhone are from here. Your wetsuit, your Bluetooth headset, Odwalla, commercial Unix, they were all invented here. For a little town of 50,000, we’ve got this rich history of inventors. As an economic development agency, we can support that ecosystem … What we want to do is foster the growth of jobs that have the highest wages and the lowest environmental footprint.”

Koht also points out that the biggest challenge is “identifying and retaining” talent and capital that currently flows to tech jobs in San Jose and Silicon Valley.

“We have about 20,000 vehicle trips per day to San Jose from Santa Cruz County,” he says. “That labor force is highly educated, highly motivated and creating the digital economy. We’d like to create conditions such that the jobs they currently drive to in San Jose can also exist here.”

It might seem odd that the Redevelopment Agency’s focus is split between small moves like painting building façades and huge projects like rebuilding the Tannery, and encouraging high-tech business ventures. But city officials say that each of these things, in their own way, contributes to making Santa Cruz unique.

Coonery puts it this way: “I think our goal has to be to create a community where people can live, work, shop, raise their kids, and retire. That’s the definition of a sustainable community. And I think the redevelopment agency is the way that we’re going to support many of the projects that make that possible. It’s the little things that make the big, big difference, and the agency has played no small role.”

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