Panorama City Looks for Signs of Resurgence in Business Community

Times Staff Writer

Three decades ago, Panorama City was envisioned as a retail and commercial center of the mid-San Fernando Valley, complete with towering office buildings and a sprawling shopping mall. That was before hard times hit the area.

These days, building facades in the small community of nearly 18,000 are splattered with graffiti, and many stores along main thoroughfares have gone out of business. Nearly all of Panorama City's large office complexes have "for lease" and "office space available" signs posted in front.

Even the area's bright spot, the 33-year-old Panorama Mall, can't escape the problems. Across the street, dirt lots and empty storefronts sit like taunting reminders of the way things have gone for much of the business community.

Early Promise Fulfilled

Touted by civic leaders in the 1950s and '60s as an up-and-coming business center, Panorama City at first seemed to fulfill its promise. The business community flourished and, along with it, the Panorama City Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber had a healthy bank account, held frequent fund-raisers and wielded clout at City Hall. By 1974, Los Angeles City officials responded to the chamber's persistent lobbying and agreed that the community deserved its place on the map. And, for the first time, Panorama City's name appeared on maps of the San Fernando Valley.

"It was a nice area to live in, the shopping district was quite nice and there were a number of office buildings flourishing there," said City Councilman Hal Bernson, who lived in Panorama City for a year in 1966.

George Koutsoubas, who headed the chamber in the late 1960s, said he remembers when "it used to be prestigious to say you worked in Panorama City."

"You had quite an impact on politicians in those days," he said. "It's amazing the difference between what it was and what it is now."

Just as Panorama City has had problems in recent years attracting and keeping businesses, its chamber has had problems attracting and keeping members. The chamber, about $12,000 in debt, recently closed its doors. It is unclear when--or even if--it will reopen.

Just before it closed, chamber Treasurer Gloria McCord sent invitations for a fund-raiser to all of the 1,700 businesses in the Panorama City-Sepulveda area. Only six responded.

"No one wants to join the chamber," McCord said. "If you don't have support from the community, it's hopeless. Most chambers have problems, but this one seems to have the worst problems."

Even when the chamber merged in 1982 with one in Sepulveda, it didn't seem to help. The chamber's problems seemed to worsen.

As recently as a year ago, the chamber boasted more than 100 dues-paying members, McCord said. Now, there are about 50.

"I went to a couple of chamber meetings and looked at merchants there and they all really needed help, they were looking for answers," said one businessman who recently moved his office from Panorama City to Northridge.

"I think the chamber, very frankly, simply didn't do anything at all."

Most business people join chambers of commerce to meet each other and generate business deals. But chambers also typically disseminate information about their communities and work at promoting them.

Plagued by 'Lethargy'

But instead of promoting Panorama City, some businessmen say, the chamber has watched it slide.

Burt Boeckmann, owner of Galpin Ford, one of the area's most successful businesses, said the organization is plagued by "lethargy."

"You have a community that's going somewhat downhill and people aren't willing to do anything about it," he said.

Although there are no precise statistics available on vacancies, about one-fourth of the offices in large buildings are empty, and several businesses--notably banks and insurance companies--have closed their Panorama City branches within the last five years.

The Wells Fargo Bank branch, one of the largest branch offices in the community, closed in March, 1984, because it "wasn't living up to our expectations" in deposits, business accounts, loans and consumer and saving accounts, a bank spokeswoman said.

Businesses ranging from fitness centers to medical offices in the heart of Panorama City also have closed.

"We do have more business turnover there than we have in other areas," said Chuck Firnwalt, senior field representative for the city's Department of Business Licenses, Tax and Permits. He said, however, the city does not keep statistics on the number of businesses that have closed in recent years.

'Boom-Town Mentality'

Richard Katz, the Democratic assemblyman whose district encompasses Panorama City, attributes the decline to the "Western boom-town mentality," a gradual move westward in the Valley.

Part of the City of Los Angeles, Panorama City is bounded by Roscoe Boulevard to the south, Nordhoff Street to the north, Woodman Avenue to the east and Kester Avenue to the west. Its founder was the late real estate developer Fritz Burns, who, as president of Kaiser Homes, built hundreds of houses in the area during the post-World War II construction boom.

In 1955, the area gained a special identity when it became home to one of the Valley's first shopping malls. For a few years, the Panorama Mall drew large crowds--until the 1970s, when larger shopping centers were built in nearby communities, and business at the Panorama Mall declined.

"The mall was really becoming a ghost town," said Mary Williams, mall general manager. "It wasn't what it was back in the '50s and '60s."

"Northridge Fashion Center was built and that was huge," said a longtime Panorama City businessman who recently relocated his insurance business to Granada Hills. "It attracted all the big stores. Then there was the Fallbrook Mall, then Sherman Oaks. They've since built larger, newer malls. Panorama Mall then became old and small."

In 1979, the Panorama Mall tried to overcome its image as a shopping relic with the help of a $7-million face lift. When it reopened in 1980, stores had been remodeled and the entire mall enclosed. The expansion seemed to help.

In the past few years, the center has seen a resurgence of business and become a focal point for those who believe Panorama City will rebound.

$68 Million in Sales

With 54 shops and three large department stores, the Panorama Mall ranked 40th out of 61 regional shopping malls in Los Angeles and Orange counties in 1986. It tallied more than $68 million in sales, according to reports by the state Board of Equalization.

The Northridge shopping center, with its 137 stores, ranked fifth.

Business at the Panorama City Broadway, one of the major department stores at the mall, has steadily improved over the last three years, according to William (Mac) MacDonald, senior vice president for marketing and sales promotion.

"This year, sales have been just about excellent for us," MacDonald said. "They are well ahead of last year in November and December. Within the region, it's been a top performer all year long. This indicates that there's a basic revitalization there."

Howe Foster, San Fernando Valley district manager at Grubb & Ellis Realty, said he sees businesses shifting away from Ventura Boulevard, where there are building moratoriums and restrictions on size, to mid-Valley communities such as Van Nuys and Panorama City, where land is cheaper and subject to fewer restrictions.

"Ventura Boulevard has . . . been the address where offices want to be, but there's a kind of transition going on in the central Valley," Foster said. "Now, with Ventura Boulevard somewhat changed, I think there is some hope for places like Panorama City."

The transition, however, has yet to begin. Foster said Panorama City has added only one significant office building in five years.

Katz Believes in Comeback

Even with that disappointing statistic, Assemblyman Katz said he believes that the area will be rejuvenated and the chamber will come back.

"Every neighborhood goes through ups and downs," Katz said. "This is a time when Panorama City needs to regroup and put some energy into things. . . . I think the chamber is going to rebound. There are a lot of business people who care about the community."

But some business people say the chamber's problems go beyond businesses leaving town. They attribute problems more to a steady turnover in administration. There have been three executive directors in three years and, in some periods, no director at all.

Chamber Treasurer McCord said one executive director neglected to pay state and federal taxes as well as some bills in 1986 and 1987. The chamber still owes $1,500 in back taxes from 1986, she said.

Others argue that the problems started in 1985, when a full-time executive director was first brought on.

"We lost money by paying out a salary that we didn't have before," said mall manager Williams, a chamber member since 1980.

But nearly everyone agrees that a recent dispute with the chamber's latest executive director was behind the chamber's closing in November. Coupled with the declining membership, the fight over the director's back pay was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

Executive director Donna Hallak insisted that the chamber owed her $2,700 for work she did from August to November.

Expected to Be Paid

Hallak, who said she was reimbursed for business-related expenses, maintains that she was told she also would receive $8 an hour. "I went in expecting to be paid," she said.

Chamber officials contend that Hallak had agreed to work as an unpaid volunteer. "We were quite sure she was doing it all for free," chamber President Mark Figearo said. "We told her we couldn't afford to pay her."

The lack of money and the upheaval over Hallak triggered cancellation of one of the few chamber-sponsored traditions in Panorama City in December--the Christmas Parade, Figearo said.

When people called the chamber office, a cryptic phone message announced: "This office is closed for the next three weeks. There will not be a parade this year and I'm very sorry. Thank you." Even now, a month after the holidays, the recording is still being played.

The parade, which was established in 1982 and featured marching bands, drill teams and celebrants on horseback, would have cost about $500.

"We just didn't have the funds," McCord said. "City permits, judges, trophies, stands, podiums--it all takes money."

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