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Santa Ana, Trying to Boost Image, Targets Check Cashing Firms

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Downtown Santa Ana is known for its historic buildings and vibrant Latino shopping districts. The commercial center also has the distinction of being Orange County’s check cashing capital, something city officials are determined to change.

About three dozen check cashing businesses operate within a 1.6-mile radius of 4th and Main streets, according to an online directory. This month, the city moved to stem the proliferation of such operations, which cater mostly to low-income immigrants, by making it harder for them to set up shop in Santa Ana.

Officials said there are simply too many of the establishments around, degrading the image of a city that is pushing to revitalize its central business district.

It is the latest in a series of efforts by the city to tighten regulations on commerce that some consider unseemly, including push-cart vending, garage sales and heavy concentrations of pay telephones.

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“We are one of the densest cities in California. If you allow everything everyone wants to do, you are headed for problems,” said Santa Ana Mayor Miguel A. Pulido Jr. “We can’t allow for an over-concentration of any one kind of business. That’s what’s best for our city.”

But the most recent crackdown--prohibiting new check cashing businesses within 1,000 feet of an existing service, and requiring conditional use permits for others--has generated criticism from some residents who feel the city is polishing its reputation at the expense of immigrants.

Such businesses are more popular with immigrants than banks because people can cash checks even if they lack the required identification and Social Security number to open a bank account or qualify for a credit card. Even when such barriers do not exist, many Latino immigrants come from cultures in which paying by cash is the norm and mistrust for banks is high.

“Every time someone tries to get ahead, they are cut down if they are an immigrant,” complained Carlos Trevino, 32, who cashes his checks in downtown Santa Ana each week. City Councilman Ted R. Moreno expressed similar views. City leaders “are closing their eyes to services that are needed in the community,” he said.

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Others point to another controversial decision earlier this year regulating the number of pay telephones in the city. Officials acted after complaints that the proliferation of pay phones was blighting the landscape and attracting crime.

Some immigrants criticized the action, saying pay phones are a lifeline for people who can’t afford phones at home.

The city last year tried to ban street vendors--who sell everything from mangoes to tacos--in the downtown area, but a judge temporarily blocked the order. City officials and some merchants have defended the move, saying that the street sales generate litter.

Added together, critics say these actions suggest city officials don’t value services used heavily by immigrants.

“You need to honor the fact that you have a minority populace. You can’t sweep it under the carpet,” said immigration attorney Kathryn Terry of Orange, who has worked closely with the check cashing businesses.

The latest crackdown came Nov. 15, when the City Council gave preliminary approval to the 1,000-foot ban on new check cashing businesses, and rules requiring any new operation to undergo possible annual reviews and repeated inspections. A final vote is scheduled Dec. 6; if passed, the changes would take effect 30 days later. Such restrictions would not affect existing businesses.

Defenders of the policy say their actions have been unfairly viewed in terms of social class and ethnicity because of the city’s large Latino population.

The goal, they say, is to improve the downtown area by attracting a diverse array of businesses that provides services to all residents and generates tax revenue for the city.

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City Manager David N. Ream estimates that about $300 million in new investment has been made in Santa Ana in the last year alone. That includes several new corporate headquarters near MacArthur Boulevard and Main Street, as well as the addition of Jaguar, Volvo and Saab dealerships at the Santa Ana Auto Mall.

Planning Commissioner Glenn Mondo says this kind of success should spread to the center of the city. If they don’t slow the proliferation of check cashing operations, officials say, there will be less variety of business.

“When we are trying to look at businesses who want to come here, many do not want to locate near a check cashing business,” Mondo said. “The image or perception is that this is not a successful area. I believe it’s bad for the city’s image.”

Mondo said there are enough check cashing operations that no one will be left without service.

“This is a truly diverse city,” Mondo said. “I think far too often we are making sure we provide services to the lowest sectors, and that leads to running the middle and upper sectors out.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Santa Ana At A Glance:

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Santa Ana Orange County % Unemployment 4.8% 2.6% (7,780) (38,700) Median Income $32,835 $45,922 Pop. per square mile 11,517 3,843 % Hispanic pop. 68.3% 25.5% (211,229) (684,130)

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Source: Cal State Fullerton, Center for Demographic Research, 1999


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