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O.C. supervisors approve aid for downtown Santa Ana merchants hit by streetcar construction

OC Streetcar construction along 4th Street off Broadway in downtown Santa Ana.
(Gabriel San Román)

Business owners along 4th Street in downtown Santa Ana weathered hardships brought on by the pandemic for nearly two years in order to stay open.

But now many merchants say those travails are no match for the dust bowl the historic retail thoroughfare has become since construction began on the OC Streetcar in February.

After unsuccessfully pushing the Orange County Transportation Authority, which is overseeing the $509.5-million project, for economic aid last month, they voiced their plight on Tuesday before the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

“I started from nothing to surviving the pandemic but I’m not sure I can say the same about this OC Streetcar project from hell,” said Ginette Sanchez, a downtown business owner. “My business has lost 70% of its revenue since February. This streetcar project is worse than the pandemic.”

Supervisor Katrina Foley, who now represents Santa Ana in District 2’s newly redrawn boundaries, found a partial solution by way of federal COVID-19 relief money earmarked for her district. She proposed $1.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to assist businesses affected by both streetcar construction and the ongoing pandemic.

“This would be the perfect initiative to support the local businesses,” she said. “It would really be the only way that we could get them funds, which would complement the funds that the city of Santa Ana has also provided.”

Santa Ana created its own $1.5-million Business Interruption Fund in March and has, to date, dispersed $617,000 to 85 qualifying businesses.

When pushed to do the same by downtown merchants, OCTA claimed doing so would constitute an illegal gift of public funds under state law. The agency approved $400,000 two years ago for “Eat, Shop, Play” marketing and promotional funds for downtown Santa Ana while more recently pledging to improve signage during construction.

Road closure signs blocking entrance to 4th Street in downtown Santa Ana.
Road closure signs blocking entrance to 4th Street in downtown Santa Ana.
(Gabriel San Román)

“Those signs make no sense,” Mimi Mar, who owns Pizza Press in downtown, told supervisors. “They don’t work. Help us stay open.”

Like Foley, Supervisor Don Wagner also serves on OCTA’s board of directors. While he felt his hands were tied as a director, he noted criticisms of supervisors during the meeting for inaction were unwarranted.

“It’s not our project,” Wagner said. “It’s an OCTA project. It should be OCTA’s job to fix.”

But since his calls for OCTA to halt the project altogether have gone unheeded, Wagner supported Foley’s proposal as supervisors had the legal authority to help.

“We are front row spectators to the damage this OCTA project is doing and ought to step in,” he said. “There’s $5 million of these funds available. I don’t know why only $1.2 million of the $5 million is available.”

That comment prompted “give more” pleas from the audience.

Foley reached out to many business owners and assessed rental needs. The $1.2 million was proposed on a sliding scale where businesses could receive up to $20,000 in grant money, based on the number of people employed as well as square footage.

Board Chairman Doug Chaffee asked Foley if Santa Ana would be willing to administer the county grants in order to expedite their dispersal.

“I can’t imagine they would say no,” he said.

Chaffee gave Foley discretion to negotiate with Santa Ana to see if they would want to incorporate the new funding into their existing Business Interruption Fund administration.

After that, the board voted unanimously to approve the funding, which was greeted with cheers of “thank you” from business owners in the audience.

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