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At 60, Fountain Valley looks to revitalize and reinvent

At 60, Fountain Valley looks to revitalize and reinvent
Ten-year-old Fountain Valley resident Anabelle Lockwood started a lemonade stand last summer. She’s one of a few young entrepreneurs who have started businesses in the city. (Photo by Nuran Alteir)

Fountain Valley is a nice place to live. So the city's slogan says.

But there's a feeling among many people who live there that the city needs more oomph.

"It's very quiet. It's very conservative," said Rick Maldonado, a local resident and hairdresser. "Everything here is, [at] 9 o'clock, dead, like vampires are coming to attack."

Partly because of such perceptions, Fountain Valley is looking itself in the mirror as it approaches its 60th anniversary.

The big question: How does a bedroom community wake up in order to attract and keep a younger type of resident?

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"While there's not a lot of things to do, you can find some places to go to have a good time," said Lauren Lebouvier, an 18-year-old who calls Fountain Valley home. "I found a place to do karaoke."

Alan Bui, 21, agrees there's not much to do.

"You can go bowling. There's some food places, I guess," he said. "There's not much nightlife here. You have to go to different cities."

Fountain Valley, sandwiched among Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Santa Ana and Westminster, was incorporated June 13, 1957. Today, more than 55,000 people call the city home (Photo by Nuran Alteir)

Fountain Valley, sandwiched among Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Santa Ana and Westminster, was incorporated June 13, 1957. The baby boom following World War II meant more people, and more people meant residential and commercial developments. Today, more than 55,000 people live in Fountain Valley.

There are few places that offer a window into Fountain Valley's history, but Courreges Ranch off Newland Street and Talbert Avenue is one. The Courreges family raised sheep and grew sugar beets, corn and potatoes. Over time, the family sold parts of the property as taxes climbed.

What's left is zoned for single-family homes and likely will be developed. The ranch's notoriety hasn't faded — the video game Pokémon Go made the location a gym.

Like much of Orange County, the city quickly transformed from an agricultural community to a more diversified economy with restaurants, medical centers, gyms and home-based businesses.

"I don't know where you could put more," Lebouvier said, reflecting on how urbanized the city is now.

Fountain Valley Mayor John Collins listens during a City Council meeting Tuesday. Collins has served on the council for 26 years. (Photo by Nuran Alteir)

Mayor John Collins says the city has had successful growth due to the original master plan adopted before any developments began in the 1960s.

"That's contributed a lot to the way we are today," Collins said. "You didn't have to go and tear down things, fight people to get into their areas, change zoning. It was planned out very, very well."

Residential neighborhoods were at the heart of it all. Property taxes make up the majority of the city's income, followed by sales taxes, according to the city budget.

What's next?

"You can't stay a bedroom community forever, because the cost of being a city now has changed so much that you simply have to have more revenue than a bedroom community can provide," said Cheryl Brothers, who was reelected to the City Council in November.

The city's population is growing steadily but also is aging. Meanwhile, city revenue has gone stagnant as expenses have increased — forcing the council to slash budgets and look to new revenue sources.

After the national recession that began in late 2007, six comprehensive annual financial reports revealed considerable deficits in the city's budget between 2008 and 2016. But in 2010, the city was able to bring down costs, renegotiate pensions and end the year with a $1.3-million surplus.

City staff blames the current $1.76-million deficit on the state for dissolving more than 400 redevelopment agencies throughout California in 2012. Those agencies enabled cities such as Fountain Valley to capture a greater share of property taxes for redevelopment activities.

The redevelopment agencies' dissolution took $8 million a year in tax increments from Fountain Valley for distribution to cities, counties, special districts and school and community college districts to help "preserve core public services," according to the California Department of Finance.

On Nov. 8, city officials breathed a sigh of relief when nearly 60% of Fountain Valley voters approved Measure HH, an increase of the local sales tax to 9% from 8%.

The increased sales tax is expected to bring in more than $11.5 million a year after it takes effect in April.

Will more money mean fewer problems?

The question now is how to spend that extra tax money. Part of the increased revenue will be used to maintain current city services and some of it is expected to pay off outstanding debt. The City Council and a not-yet-formed oversight committee will decide what happens to the rest.

But even with the increased revenue, city staff members say Fountain Valley's financial stability is not guaranteed.

"It's constantly changing. We have to find new ways to self-support. We have to find additional sources of revenue to sustain the community … and not depend on one source," said Maggie Le, assistant to the city manager. "We have to be creative and be a player in attracting new businesses."

At its meeting Tuesday, the City Council adopted two programs designed to attract and retain businesses. The Hotel Incentive Program aims to attract three- to five-star hotels to build in the area by offering financial support if needed. The other initiative is intended to keep existing businesses in the community by providing low-interest loans.

Is the 'Crossings' a key?

One plan to revitalize the city and ultimately bring in more revenue involves the "Crossings," a nickname given to a 155-acre industrial area at the south end of town. The city wants to encourage landowners to think about using their properties for purposes such as retail, restaurants, arts and housing.

The area is currently zoned for light industrial, but it's no longer being used for that. Instead, the large buildings have lent themselves to storage and furniture showrooms through conditional use permits. The city hired a consultant to study massive rezoning that would make future development easier.

The idea is to create an area where people can live, work and play.

Maldonado, 44, a hairstylist at Orange Coast Beauty Supply inside the Crossings, said he supports the concept.

"You got to rebuild," he said.

New businesses aren't just for the city's tax base, said Maldonado, who has a 29-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son who grew up in Fountain Valley. They're for the people who live there.

"When we were kids, we went to the skating rink. I don't think the kids are doing that anymore," Maldonado said, also noting that the city's Boomers amusement park seems deserted most days. "It's not in."

There aren't many other places to go in the city, he said.

"It would be nice to have something to do in Fountain Valley where you can hang with everybody else that you know and live with," Maldonado said, using the Bella Terra mall in Huntington Beach as an example.

Still, Maldonado is wary of using the Crossings as the center of a Fountain Valley renaissance, mainly because he's gotten comfortable at his new business location there.

Viet Pham, who grew up in Fountain Valley, agrees that the city needs a change.

"People in Fountain Valley don't even eat here," said Pham, 34.

He and four friends recently opened The Recess Room restaurant off Brookhurst Street in their hometown. "When we were here, all we would say is, 'Where are we going to eat?'" Pham said. "We always had to leave."

Brothers says young families are choosing to live elsewhere because of the cost of Fountain Valley houses. It's most evident in school enrollment numbers, she said.

"We have a lot of students bused into our [elementary] schools now because of dwindling enrollment, plus the fact it's a very high-quality school district," Brothers said.

The median price for a single-family home in the city is $710,000, according to real estate website zillow.com.

Proposed four- and six-story apartment buildings at the Crossings could offer an alternative for people interested in moving to Fountain Valley.

But not everyone wants that kind of development in the city.

At a packed City Council meeting in July addressing the Crossings project, residents spoke overwhelmingly against the idea.

"I am for responsible development, but the Crossings is not responsible development," said Kim Constantine, a frequent council critic who ran unsuccessfully against incumbents Brothers and Steve Nagel in the November election.

Constantine, a Fountain Valley resident of 20 years, said the project would be a bad move for the city.

"Some people think that Fountain Valley Crossings is going to be something like SoCo [South Coast Collection] or The Camp [both in Costa Mesa]. It's not," said Constantine, who contended that plans would be limited because of the site's proximity to the Orange County Sanitation District wastewater treatment plant.

On Jan. 6, the city released an environmental impact report addressing potential effects of prospective projects. The City Council and Planning Commission will hear from the public about the report during a joint meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall.

"This is where we have a big fight in our city," said Mary Parsons, president and chief executive of the Fountain Valley Chamber of Commerce. "Fountain Valley is made up of a lot of seniors. We have a lot of homeowners that have been here for 40 years, and they don't want to see things change."

The city's population has steadily grown older over the years, according to the U.S. Census. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of people 65 or older increased by 6% while approximately the same number of people ages 25 to 44 moved away.

"Many people have stayed, but their children have grown and moved away to other areas," said City Manager Bob Hall.

Many who have stayed are holding onto property to benefit from Proposition 13, which in 1978 lowered property taxes and capped increases as long as owners didn't sell the property.

"It's good for me, but is it good for the city? Not necessarily, because the city doesn't get a percentage of that increase in property [value]," said Collins, who has served on the City Council for 26 years.

The cycle of stagnated revenue with increasing costs is not sustainable, Hall said.

"You've got to keep putting new life into the community for it to remain relevant," Hall said. "Otherwise, you age yourself out of business."

Speaking of business

Prime real estate and relatively cheap land encouraged big-name companies such as Hyundai, at left beside the 405 Freeway, to bring their headquarters and hundreds of jobs to Fountain Valley, city staff says. (Photo by Nuran Alteir)

Between 2014 and 2016, the city welcomed 391 new businesses, according to city records.

But that hasn't helped the city's tax revenue much because the majority of new businesses are home-based. They don't generate sales tax.

Prime real estate and relatively cheap land encouraged big-name companies such as Hyundai, Yakult and United Sports Brands to bring their headquarters and hundreds of jobs to Fountain Valley. They don't generate much local sales tax either.

"It doesn't mean that's a bad thing. It's also a good thing because it means job creation," Le said.

And there's sales tax generated when those workers dine out, she said. "When there's additional jobs in the community, employees that work in the city have to go to lunch."

Young entrepreneurs are bringing fresh business ideas to Fountain Valley. Take, for examples, Afters Ice Cream, which opened in 2014; nail art salon Black File, which opened in 2015; and Loco Lemon, a lemonade stand started last summer by 10-year-old Fountain Valley resident Anabelle Lockwood.

"Getting started is the toughest part of it, but once you're here … as much effort as you put into the city is basically what you get back," said Chanel René, Anabelle's mother. "For her, it was easy because she's a kid and it's cute."

René says changing demographics are the driving force behind many of the new businesses.

A growing number of Fountain Valley residents are of Asian or Latino origin. The demographic shift is not unique to Fountain Valley. Many suburbs across the country are becoming racially and ethnically diverse.

And that's ultimately good for business, said David Truong, who runs Mimi's Jewelry on Brookhurst Street.

"To diversify the city with different businesses makes the city even better than what it is," said Truong, noting that many new businesses, especially restaurants, have a cultural tone.

That's easy to see while scanning Fountain Valley's restaurants, where pho, tacos and sushi dominate menus.

The city wants to capitalize on three features — location, growing population and changing demographics — to make it more attractive to developers.

Hall says there's an opportunity to embrace the city's diversifying population and create an experiential shopping center that doesn't directly compete with destinations such as South Coast Plaza, Bella Terra or Westminster Mall.

But that's not up to the city, he said.

"Whoever builds that is going to decide that," Hall said.

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Writer Priscella Vega contributed to this report.

Nuran Alteir is a contributor to Times Community News.

Twitter: @whatnuransaid

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