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Reagan Rites Help Simi Valley Emerge From Shadow of King Beating Trial

Times Staff Writer

As a devoted family laid Ronald Reagan to rest near Simi Valley on Friday in vivid pictures beamed around the world, officials from that affluent Ventura County suburb in the conservative heart of “Reagan Country” reveled in the burnishing of their civic image.

Just 12 years ago, a jury in Simi Valley cleared Los Angeles police officers in the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King, sparking a horrific riot and branding the city as racist in the minds of critics, although only two jurors came from there.

But Friday, as cameras captured the dramatic Western vistas from the hilltop burial site at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, officials who endured the 1992 riots welcomed the reflected glory of a president who spawned a new era of conservative politics.

“Our pride is beyond description,” said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who in 1987 pointed out that hilltop as an ideal site for a presidential library as he and Reagan flew over in Air Force One. “The fact that Ronald Reagan chose Simi Valley for his library and final resting place clearly has added significance to the world about what a special place this is.

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“It has certainly put Simi Valley on the map,” he said.

Greg Stratton, mayor of Simi Valley when the presidential library opened and during the Los Angeles riots, said images of the Reagan burial service -- participants silhouetted against the golden glow of a sun setting behind rugged brown hills -- were priceless for the city.

“It’s an advertising man’s dream,” Stratton said. “This week everybody has had this really wonderful feeling about this being ‘Reagan Country.’ Even local Democrats are taking pride.”

City boosters said that if the racist image that plagued Simi Valley -- a mostly white enclave on Los Angeles’ western flank -- still existed, it was put to rest last week.

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“I think people already thought of Simi Valley as the safest city, not in relation to Rodney King,” said City Manager Mike Sedell, referring to his community’s frequent ranking as the most crime-free large city in the U.S. “And this just put a stake in the heart of [the racist] image.”

Sedell said he expected hundreds of thousands of Reagan admirers to flock to Simi Valley after the library reopens to the public at 10 a.m. Monday, judging from the 106,000 who waited up to eight hours to view the 40th president’s flag-draped casket in the library rotunda early last week. Even before Reagan’s burial, the library drew about 250,000 visitors a year.

Reagan died June 5 after a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease.

“The library was already becoming more and more of an attraction with the arrival of Air Force One,” the presidential jet to be displayed in a special exhibit hall on the grounds, Sedell said. “But this probably accelerated that a thousand-fold.”

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Simi Valley has had image problems since the 1960s, when the small farm town exploded with growth. County development rules allowed hopscotch construction of subdivisions, in which some houses sold for $1 down. That led neighbors to give the community the snide nickname “Seamy Valley.”

Simi Valley residents incorporated in 1969, but even with better planning an unsavory image lingered. And in the early ‘70s, it lost a war for a regional shopping mall to upscale neighbor Thousand Oaks. Only recently did a large mall developer agree to build in the city.

That was why city officials were so excited when a Los Angeles development firm donated the current library site to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation after faculty at Stanford University rebuffed a campus proposal. In Simi Valley, developers also wanted to build a large hotel and conference center and a 600-unit senior citizen housing project, which were never approved.

Even the library, located just outside Simi Valley city limits, drew opposition from environmentalists because it would violate a so-called greenbelt agreement between three cities and the county to keep the agricultural Tierra Rejada Valley as open space. It also drew the ire of residents throughout the county who did not like Reagan or his politics.

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But county officials quickly fell in line behind construction of the library. And within a year the county Board of Supervisors, though controlled by Democrats, approved it.

“It was controversial. There were people who felt it was inappropriate to have Ronald Reagan’s library here for any number of reasons: Some just thought it was inappropriate to have him on their hallowed ground,” former county Chief Administrative Officer Richard Wittenberg recalled.

But Wittenberg and the supervisors concluded that the library would gain prestige for the county, bringing in prominent speakers and a million dollars in sales tax each year, he said. “I think it’s turned out to be a magnificent asset. Simi Valley was a city in transition, and the library has been very helpful.”

The library’s opening in 1991 brought a flurry of attention, when boosters gained the participation of all five living U. S. presidents. Visits by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev have also added to the luster.

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But all that was temporarily forgotten with the verdicts in the King case, and riots, the next spring.

As recently as 2001, Councilwoman Barbara Williamson proposed that Simi Valley adopt the slogan “Home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library” as a way to put the King case’s stigma behind it. The council rejected the proposal, fearing the designation would convey that the library was the city’s only asset.

“At the time we still had the shadow cast upon us from the Rodney King trial, which was totally unfair because all we did was supply the courtroom,” Williamson said Saturday. Last week’s events “were a wonderful way to balance that out.”

Williamson said she might again propose adopting the presidential library slogan.

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“I don’t want to ride the coattails of a tragedy,” she said, “but I still want to change it. I think it’s more fitting than ever. For the last week, we were a shining star, that’s for sure.”


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