Sporting a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, Ventura Mayor Brian Brennan was basking in the glory Friday of having his seaside city designated as one of the most livable communities in the country.
“Ventura has worked hard to be a better place to live,” Brennan said during a news conference in front of the centuries-old San Buenaventura Mission, where he was joined by other local dignitaries.
The designation came from Washington-based Partners for Livable Communities, a national nonprofit organization whose criteria focus on quality of life, the local economy and civic leadership. The group hands out awards each decade.
Brennan and Affinity Bank President Mike McGuire, along with former Mayor Ray Di Guilio and community development director Susan Daluddung, will attend a ceremony Tuesday in Washington, D.C., announcing the honors.
Also on the list of 30 winners Friday were Riverside, Santa Rosa, San Jose, San Diego and the Sacramento area.
Ventura won in the small-city category, along with Elkhart, Ind.; Fayetteville, Ark.; Roanoke, Va.; and Salem, Mass. The communities, all built around historic centers, were recognized for helping to create desirable places to live, work and visit.
In Ventura, officials are working toward a new blueprint for growth that includes a unifying design and special identity for downtown, with an emphasis on building within the city, rather than pushing outward. The city is also hoping to replace a former oil-based economy with one dependent upon cleaner, higher-tech industry.
“Environmentally, we want to be a leader, not a follower,” Brennan said.
McGuire said Ventura’s cultural backdrop is also one of its strongest selling points.
“One of the biggest challenges [in running a business] is bringing new people in,” he said. “We need to sell them on the area.
“But that’s one of the great benefits of Ventura,” he said. The downtown arts community, which includes dance, music and theater, “makes it very easy to recruit.”
Despite its new designation, the city of 100,000 has problems. It may be among the nation’s most livable cities, but with the median price of a resale house listed at $470,000 last month, it’s far from the most affordable.
Providing housing for local workers remains a challenge.
“Affordable housing is something we want to work on and work hard on. But it’s not just us,” said Brennan, adding that communities all over California are wrestling with the problem. “As part of receiving this award, it will keep our feet to the fire in creating affordable housing.”
Riverside leaders also were thrilled with the news on their city’s listing. “This is the best of times in this city,” Mayor Ron Loveridge said. He counted major economic development, civic participation, diversity and amenities such as a pedestrian mall that features wireless Internet access as among the reasons the city received the honor.
Lawrence Geraty, president of La Sierra University, said when he was offered the job his wife was reluctant to leave Massachusetts. But a visit changed her mind. “As I looked around, I was very impressed that Riverside is a true cross-section of the world,” he said. “It’s really a privilege to live and work in Riverside.”
The city of a quarter-million people has seen lows in recent decades. In the early 1990s, its downtown was deserted. The city’s most well-known attraction, the historic Mission Inn, had been abandoned and was circled by barbed wire.
But after tens of millions of dollars in renovations by a local businessman, the inn now sees a million customers annually.
Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.