(photo by Brandon Wise)

BROAD STAGE — While California’s economy is far from golden as it struggles to recover from one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history, Santa Monica is in an enviable position, moving forward with key public and private developments and infrastructure projects that will create jobs, attract employers and maintain tax revenue levels to protect services for residents.

That’s the message sent by City Manager Rod Gould during his State of the City address, delivered Thursday to a near capacity crowd at Santa Monica College’s Broad Stage. The event was hosted by the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce and featured civic and business leaders from across the spectrum.

Gould said Santa Monica is not immune to the harsh economic conditions plaguing the state and the nation, however, with “fiscal discipline,” strong and stable leadership and collaboration, “our fair city is well positioned for civic advancement in the face of these challenges.”

Borrowing a line from author John Winthrop, Gould called on local power brokers to embrace the responsibility to lead, envisioning Santa Monica as a “shining city on a hill,” a goal that can be achieved through partnerships and community involvement.

“Together we are better,” Gould said, repeating a central theme of the event, the goal of which was to inspire and reaffirm efforts to attract and retain businesses.

Mayor Richard Bloom said Santa Monica has made progress in ending conflict and healing old wounds, saying residents, City Hall and the business community were once like “scorpions in a bottle,” who could not come to a mutual understanding on issues like homelessness.

But today, things have changed, he said, as the community put differences aside to find solutions. Bloom pointed to the passage of Measures Y and YY, a half-cent sales tax increase and companion advisory measure that are expected to generate $12 million annually, with half of that money promised to local public schools to help them deal with severe cuts from the state. Bloom also mentioned work to house the homeless and protect the environment.

It is that commitment to collaboration that will help fill vacant store fronts, combat unemployment and overcome other challenges, Bloom said.

“We are a jobs producer in Santa Monica and we will continue in that roll,” he said. “It is essential to provide leadership in that area for the new California that will emerge from this current crisis.”

There will be cuts ($8 million so far from City Hall’s half-billion-dollar budget), fee increases and employees will be called on to cover more of their healthcare and pension costs, Gould said, but despite that, progress is being made.

Crime is at an all-time low, the fire department improved response times by one minute and the Big Blue Bus has added a new maintenance facility and is installing hundreds of new, state-of-the-art bus stops, Gould said. Roughly 300 homeless people were housed last year, five water wells were reactivated last month, helping the city reach near self-sufficiency, a door-to-door hazardous waste collection is in effect, and there are plans to expand free Wi-Fi service and plant 1,000 trees.

On the horizon is the arrival of the Expo Light Rail Line and the construction of the Bergamot Transit Village, the creation of two parks for the Civic Center, more affordable housing units, the return of the Los Angeles Marathon and possibly Cirque du Soleil.

Gould preached patience, warning that with progress comes some inconvenience in the form of construction disruption. Development has been a controversial topic in Santa Monica for the last decade, with residents voicing concerns about traffic congestion and density.

If Santa Monicans can practice patience, they will see that “the benefits will be long lasting,” he said.

Offering an olive branch to the business community, Gould said he has assigned an ombudsmen to work with businesses and developers to “untangle the snarls in the process, ensuring prompt, predictable service.”

“Santa Monica will become more business friendly,” he said.

City Hall has had a reputation of being inconsistent when it comes to inspections and permitting, earning Santa Monica a place amongst the most painful cities to do business with.

To counter that, in November, the City Council approved a set of business-friendly principles that included increased responsiveness to businesses that are seeking to or continue doing business in the city by the sea.

City Hall and the chamber also created the Buy Local campaign in an effort to promote local mom-and-pops businesses and encourage residents and employees here to shop in town, saving time and gas while keeping tax dollars in the community.

Following Gould’s presentation, Brad Cox, chair of the Santa Monica Alliance, an initiative started by the chamber and City Hall last year to attract and retain employers, led a panel discussion with representatives from four local business, who talked about how they have achieved and why they remain in Santa Monica.

George Rose, an executive vice president with Activision Blizzard, the masterminds behind hit video game franchises “Guitar Hero” and “Call of Duty,” said one of the main reasons for his company remaining in Santa Monica is City Hall’s installation of dark fiber, which allows massive quantities of data to travel over the internet at breakneck speeds.

He also said the city’s commitment to building affordable housing is a plus, as is the stable labor pool. The weather and and being near the ocean aren’t bad either.

Paul Kanan, executive vice president with cancer research firm Agensys, which is building a new, larger facility near Bergamot Station, said the company was founded in Santa Monica and remains here because of the proximity to universities and medical centers. He also mentioned K-12 education, the shopping, parks, hotels, and the climate.

“Santa Monica helps us attract the people we need to grow the company,” Kanan said.


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