Redlands has turned into its own worst enemy

Paul Emerson stepped under the warm light of a chandelier hanging in Emerson & Farrar, his jewelry shop in downtown Redlands. His tie was dimpled, his linen shirt smartly starched. "I just got this in last week," he said.

He held out a pair of forceps; between its prongs was a 4-carat diamond. He's asking a quarter of a million dollars, and figures it'll move in a couple of weeks. This is his stock in trade -- jewelry known in the industry as "one of ones," meaning they can never be replicated. Life, he offered, "is grand."

Yes, gross sales are down a bit. There are fewer customers buying $300 earrings, he said, "but the same number spending $20,000 or $30,000 on a ring."

"I just don't think the economy in Redlands is as bad as it is in the rest of the world," he said.

Indeed, much of the money here is the old kind, dating back to the rails and oil, to the citrus groves, to families from Chicago and New York who turned Redlands into their playground 125 years ago, who used "winter" as a verb.

But behind a veneer of diamonds and impeccably preserved mansions with French mansard-roofed towers, Redlands is suffering a crisis of confidence and identity.

Redlands, 65 miles east of Los Angeles, has long served as home to the Inland Empire's aristocracy -- "Beverly Hills before there was Beverly Hills," said Rosemary Herendeen, 70, a retired educator, relaxing outside her 108-year old Victorian home.

The result is a dynamic hive of culture, particularly for a town of just 71,000 people. Redlands has its own symphony, the 101-year-old University of Redlands and the 85-year-old Redlands Bowl, where free performances often begin with a "community sing." Theater and philanthropy thrive.

"So many treasures," said Herendeen, whose home is known to Redlands' architecture buffs as the "Cinderella House" because of its vivid colors.

But by the time City Manager N. Enrique Martinez took office in the spring of 2007, the city's sheen seemed to be fading.

Redlands had operated in the red for five years. Streets weren't getting repaved. Palm trees lining proud boulevards needed a haircut.

"It was the equivalent of leaving out the Christmas lights all year long," Martinez said. "The city didn't have the curb appeal that it once did."

Martinez helped usher in belt-tightening measures, balancing the budget and creating a Quality of Life Department through which 1,300 potholes and sinkholes were repaired in the last fiscal year, among other things. In May, the city took its most aggressive turn yet, hiring John Husing, a respected Inland Empire economist, to take a hard look at the city. The answer, delivered last month, was striking: Redlands can no longer afford its lifestyle.

Redlands, Husing found, has a "conundrum."

The community, he wrote, demands cultural amenities and boutique shopping, as well as a town that invests in older houses, preserves its heritage and maintains open space. But, he wrote, "without significant changes in the Redlands economy, neither its population nor its city government will have the necessary financial strength."

Redlands has, effectively, developed an outdated and oversized image of itself.

Husing noted that the city still has many attractive attributes, including good schools and, along with neighboring Loma Linda, the best-educated workforce in the area.

But the town is not as well-off as many had assumed; its median income ranks 13th out of the Inland Empire's 48 cities, while the median price of recently sold homes ranks it 14th. A fifth of the city's homeowners are believed to owe more than their houses are worth. The crime rate crept up last year.

The town, meanwhile, has a "decaying infrastructure," and the community is sad, Husing noted, about the "the evident aging of the city." Nowhere is that more evident than in downtown Redlands, which has at its spine State Street, one of the more enchanting "main streets" in Southern California.

Redlands has fended off much of the staggering growth of its Inland Empire neighbors in recent years, but the development it has seen has been uneven at best, some have concluded.

Developments proposed to overhaul downtown -- adding high-end residences or renovating the adjacent Redlands Mall, a timeworn, lackluster place -- have stalled or faded away.

What the town has grown in recent years is a massive cluster of shopping plazas at its north end, "and anybody can grow that," said Roberto Argentina, chef and owner of Farm Artisan Foods, a 5-year-old State Street restaurant.

"You have to adapt," Argentina said. "A town will eventually die this way."

Downtown Redlands has begun to suffer, partly because of the newer shopping plazas -- which, adding insult to injury, send no property taxes to Redlands because they rest on a "doughnut hole" of unincorporated land in the middle of the city. Downtown, vacant storefronts are popping up even as rents have doubled in the last five years.

"It's hard to see that," said Kerry Cummings, 24, Paul Emerson's daughter and an owner of Shake It Up, a State Street dance studio.

Husing offered a host of suggestions the city will begin tackling next week. Among them: stricter enforcement of property maintenance rules and a possible tax hike to address infrastructure failures. Many of his suggestions address the downtown area. For instance, the report says the city should consider buying the Redlands Mall, potentially to turn it into a government center. Husing also suggests renewed marketing efforts and the creation of a new, larger business association. Downtown, he wrote, "cannot be allowed to fail."

It is too late for some.

When Tamara Barr launched her first business 20 years ago, she could not have been more conscientious, standing in front of one potential storefront after another with a hand-held clicker, counting cars and pedestrians that passed. She settled on State Street. Her Crackerjack Gift Co. quickly developed a strong bond with the community. Parents began bringing kids in for arts-and-crafts projects. Women jammed the store for events, including annual preholiday card-making and gift-wrapping workshops.

Soon, she broke off part of the business -- scrapbooking, which was becoming popular -- and moved that to another State Street storefront. All told, she was running an 8,000-square-foot empire with 28 employees who could qualify for a profit-sharing program, too.

Then, in 2003, construction began at Citrus Plaza, the first of the large shopping centers to be built on the north end of town. Two of the shops that would come next, Michaels and Jo-Ann Fabrics, turned out to be competitors.

"You could just feel the synergy going that way," she said.

Three years ago, she moved one of her shops to a commercial park on the outskirts of town. This year, she pulled out of State Street altogether.

Today, she runs a pared-down version of the business, now called Collective Journey and focused on scrapbooking and other crafts.

"We didn't look down the road to see what was going to happen to our downtown," she said.

"These stores bring in money. And it's easy to jump ahead, wanting that money and thinking the other business will just follow. It doesn't always work like that."

She, like other small-business owners, is lobbying residents to shop locally. And she, like others, is not sure it's going to work.

"People hated to see us go. But they hadn't been coming in that much," she said with a shrug. "If you don't support the small businesses and you just shop at the biggies, then that's what you're going to get. We create our own destiny, don't we?"