Sierra Madre : Other San Gabriel Valley cities mourn the loss of their rural charm. It's intact here--but this small town may not be able to afford to keep it.

Times Staff Writer

Jerry Meyer says he likes owning a Hallmark store in Sierra Madre because he knows his customers by name, can take checks without asking for identification and can let merchandise go out the door with people who say they will come back later and pay, and actually do.

This is shop-keeping in small-town America. His store, the Paper Palace, and the whole town of Sierra Madre, Meyer said, looks and feels as if it had been picked up from the Midwest and plopped down in Southern California.

Sierra Madre is the kind of place, he said, where people stroll the streets at night licking ice cream cones, where volunteers man the fire truck and the ambulance, and where the heart of the business district has stop signs instead of traffic signals.

"We have a traffic jam in the afternoon that lasts about three minutes," Meyer said.

There are no supermarkets, just two grocery stores. People buy tools in a little hardware store, not a giant home improvement center. The coin laundry is named Coin Laundry and the restaurant is called The Only Place in Town.

If you want your car fixed, you look for buildings with big signs painted on them that say Garage.

There are a couple of sandwich shops, but no McDonald's, no Burger King, no Wendy's. If you insist on fast food from a chain outlet, you have a choice of the regular or extra crispy entrees at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But although visitors may find it pleasantly quaint, the business area of Sierra Madre is not growing, city officials say, and it is not providing city government with the amount of tax revenue the city needs. As a result, city officials have begun to explore in a tentative way how the city might create more revenue through redevelopment.

Mayor Andrew Roy Buchan said the city must be cautious. "What we really have in mind," he said, "is upgrading the retail area in a way that isn't going to disfigure the city."

Sierra Madre, with 10,800 residents, takes in less than two square miles. It is bordered by the mountains on the north, Pasadena on the west and Arcadia on the east and south.

The residential area is a mix of condominiums, apartments and houses, a few dating to the last century. There are only a few housing tracts, and the homes include everything from bungalows to estates. There are new houses, old houses, new houses built to look old, restored houses, houses that need to be restored, and houses that need to be torn down. Big houses sit next to little ones. Because of that mix, said real estate agent Judy Webb, one neighbor can be a millionaire and another can be on welfare.

The business section consists of several blocks along Sierra Madre Boulevard and two along Baldwin Avenue.

Joan Reichardt, a design consultant who surveyed the business area in an effort to get a grant for Sierra Madre under a program that helps cities preserve and invigorate downtown areas, said retail stores have been disappearing over the past five years. "People feel Sierra Madre is slipping away," she said.

Reichardt, who has lived in Sierra Madre nearly all of her 41 years, said it was once "a self-sufficient community" with a hotel, car dealership, dress shops, appliance stores and other retail businesses. Now the storefronts are being taken over by engineers, real estate agents and service businesses such as beauty shops.

Professional people are attracted to Sierra Madre, she said, because of the low-stress, small-town atmosphere, and it may be cheaper to rent a storefront here than office space somewhere else.

Reichardt said the city has 20 beauty and nail salons, but nearly all the shoe and clothing stores have gone out of business.

City Administrator James McRea said: "If you go back 15 years, you could buy an automobile from a Ford agency, you could buy clothes, maybe you couldn't buy a pillow case, but you could pretty much survive by shopping locally."

Today, McRea said: "If you want to come to Sierra Madre to have lunch and get your hair done, there's no problem. If you want to have lunch and buy a dress, you've got a problem."

McRea said there hasn't been a new commercial building constructed in Sierra Madre in five years, and sales tax revenue has remained flat, while neighboring cities have picked up business. He said Sierra Madre receives about $17 per person in sales tax a year, while the average for other cities in California is close to $100.

The city has done "reasonably well in living within its resources," he said, but only by keeping employees' salaries low, trimming services and building a backlog of streets that need to be repaired.

As Councilman Clem L. Bartolai said: "The moment of truth is approaching."

It will not be enough, he said, for the city to add a retail store or two to produce a little more sales tax. "There's got to be something much bigger than that. It's scary in a way."

The council last week invited City Atty. Charles Martin and a redevelopment consultant, Fred Lyte, to suggest how the city might use its redevelopment authority to get additional revenue.

Martin is also city attorney and city manager in Irwindale, which is trying to get the Los Angeles Raiders pro football team to move there. Irwindale's redevelopment agency, with the help of Lyte, has put $28 million in the bank with tax revenue from several major projects, including a 26-acre headquarters for a savings and loan company and a $300-million brewery.

Martin pointed out that there are only a few ways a city can raise its income. One is through population growth, but Sierra Madre's population hasn't increased in 20 years.

The city can ask voters to raise taxes, Martin said, but that strategy often leads to a recall of council members.

The other alternative is to encourage development that will produce sales and property tax revenues.

Sierra Madre's downtown is in a redevelopment project area, which means that property taxes paid on new construction are channeled to the redevelopment agency. McRea said the agency received nearly $400,000 in tax revenue last year.

Martin said the city could undertake commercial and industrial development or a recreational or institutional project. Perhaps, he suggested, there might be an opportunity to put a sanitarium or recreational hotel in the canyons.

Councilwoman Lisa Fowler said that she opposes extensive hillside development but that there might be an opportunity for "some discreet use of the land, such as a health resort."

Lyte said another possibility would be to persuade a corporation to move its headquarters to Sierra Madre. Perhaps, he said, a company might like to have "its own town" instead of being in a larger city.

Lyte stressed to the council that he was "not looking for a job" or claiming any expertise about what might work in Sierra Madre.

He said Sierra Madre has the advantage of a good reputation. "You have an excellent image as a nice little family town," he said.

Lyte said redevelopment cannot succeed unless the city is committed to it and has patience. There is strong competition for projects that will produce tax revenue, he said, and results may take time. He added that the City Council should expect criticism if it embarks on an aggressive redevelopment program.

Irwindale's efforts to attract the Raiders to a new stadium, he said, provoked so much criticism that the city has added a public relations consultant to its redevelopment group.

Lyte said Sierra Madre will not succeed in redevelopment unless its agency has the power to acquire property through condemnation. But that would require a change in Sierra Madre's redevelopment plan, which does not contain condemnation authority.

Mayor Buchan said he would oppose changing the condemnation provision.

In an interview, the mayor also said he doubts that Sierra Madre has much to learn from the Irwindale experience because the cities are so different.

He said: "We're looking for a limited approach on a scale compatible with what we have."

Cecelia Larson, a beauty salon owner who is president of the Chamber of Commerce, said the city has one faction that doesn't want any change and another that would like to tear down and rebuild. Her own feeling, she said, is somewhere in between.

"The people who live here want to see more retail and selection--not high-rise and large stores, but more retail," she said.

McRea said Sierra Madre has very little vacant land, and he sees little interest in developing hillsides above the city. "I am absolutely certain that if redevelopment takes place, it will be in the downtown core," he said.

McRea said the city will not bid for auto dealers and stores the way Monrovia and Duarte have.

"Monrovia has done wonders with its sales tax," he said, "but the developments there would be totally out of place in our community."

In addition to considering redevelopment, McRea noted that the city is participating in the California Main Street program, which is designed for cities that want to preserve and revitalize downtown areas. A committee of business leaders has been organized to hire a project manager who would work on marketing and planning in the downtown area.

McRea said the business area needs specialty shops that are strong enough to attract customers from outside Sierra Madre.

"My personal philosophy," he said, "is that there will be a trend away from malls. If you want to buy a greeting card, would you go a mall? I say, goodness no. Why not just go to a nice little stationery store?"

Some people have suggested that Sierra Madre try to build on its quaint character and attract tourists, but McRea said residents would not welcome the traffic, and businesses might not profit that much either.

For example, he said: "La Jolla is a beautiful place, but if you have been to La Jolla recently, you know that the tourists actually create a problem for the businessman. A tourist haven isn't the solution."

Councilman R. Bruce Crow said the city needs money to replace water mains that are 60 years old and undertake many other improvements. If the city did not have revenue problems, he said, there would be little reason to encourage change in the business area.

"Most of us like Sierra Madre just the way it is," he said.

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