The Place to Be? It's Irvine, Business Leaders Tell Survey

Times Staff Writer

Orange County's heart doesn't beat in the county seat of Santa Ana, its largest city, Anaheim, or its trendiest enclave, Newport Beach. Ask an executive, and you will find that the master-planned city of Irvine is the place to be.

That's perhaps the most surprising finding of a UC Irvine survey of 171 local executives released Wednesday by the university's Public Policy Research Organization.

"The relatively new city of Irvine received such an overwhelming majority of votes as the leading city in Orange County," said Lyman Porter, a professor of management and co-director of the study, in a prepared statement.

The county's business leaders gave Irvine a hefty 42% of the vote, Porter said. Anaheim came in second with 20%, and Newport Beach was a close third with 16%. A dozen other cities--including Santa Ana--vied for the remaining 22% of the nominations.

Why Irvine, you ask? It wasn't personal prejudice on the part of the respondents.

"A complete analysis of the responses showed that executives' nominations for leading city were basically unrelated to where they themselves work or live," Porter said.

But what were they related to? Well, that's a tougher question, says Jone L. Pearce, an associate professor of management and survey co-director, and one that wasn't asked in the survey.

"But we sat around and speculated why," Pearce said. "Irvine has gotten an awful lot of national and international press. It has come to symbolize the new exurban community to a lot of people. It's newer and seems to be changing more rapidly than the older cities."

(Exurban areas are mostly affluent communities beyond the suburbs of a large city.)

Less surprising were readings on the county's movers and shakers: Irvine Co. Chairman Donald L. Bren and Supervisor Thomas F. Riley were recognized as most prominent in the private and public sectors.

Politically, only Riley, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, got more than 10% of the nominations. Riley's 21% of the vote was far and away the biggest endorsement from the chief executives polled.

The only government leaders who came close were state Sens. Marian Bergeson and John Seymour, and one of Riley's fellow supervisor, Gaddi H. Vasquez. The three received a mere 8% of the vote each.

Riley is the longest-serving supervisor on the Orange County board, with 14 1/2 years under his belt. He credits two things with making him prominent:

"The open-door policy I've maintained for 14 1/2 years in this office . . . and a really very lovely wife, who in her own right has accomplished a lot of things," Riley said.

Porter, however, sees it a bit differently, and says that the survey stresses the absence of power rather than power.

"What we're seeing here is a result of the fact that our county government is so dispersed that we don't have one dominant political figure, such as Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley or New York Mayor Ed Koch," Porter said.

The results of Pearce and Porter's survey on political power in the county approximated the results of a Times poll published last May. In that poll of local executives, 73% of the respondents said that no one was the most influential person in local politics. Riley came in a distant second with 7% of the vote.

When Pearce and Porter asked local executives who the most influential people in local business are, the responses were much stronger.

Bren received 44% of the vote. Henry Segerstrom, developer of South Coast Plaza, came in second with 23%, and builder William Lyon came in a distant third with 8%. Bren, Segerstrom and Lyon also came in No. 1, 2 and 3 respectively in the Times poll, which asked the same question.

The fact that developers crowded the field of influential businessmen--and that Bren led the pack--came as no surprise to Pearce.

"Even though the economy is not dominated by development," Pearce said, "what you read in the newspaper is dominated by growth and building issues."

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