Business ideas reviewed

Coastline Pilot

A bare council majority awarded a $50,000 grant to the Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday to hire a part-time economic development director to lure new business to Laguna.

The grant was among the 24 recommendations made Tuesday by the council's Business Assistance Task Force. All but one were approved by the council.

"It was suggested that the city should hire a business development director, but we didn't feel the city should do that," said Mayor Elizabeth Pearson, co-chairwoman with Mayor Pro Tem Toni Iseman of the task force.

"The chamber wants to reduce events and work more with the businesses, so we have recommended the chamber hire a half-time person with contacts in the state and the county. That's important."

Council members Kelly Boyd and Jane Egly voted against the grant, one of two financial requests made Tuesday by the committee, but the only one approved.

The committee also asked for an $18,000 appropriation to fund a city customer-service training program.

Boyd favored the task force recommendations — except the requests for immediate money.

"We shouldn't jump into this [grant] before we make some changes in policy," Boyd said.

Egly agreed.

"We need to clean house before selling it," she said.

Boyd also objected to city funding for customer-service training.

"I think the owners ought to train their people to be nice to customers," Boyd said.

The task force was created more than a year ago to address the goals of attracting new business to town, maintaining and supporting existing businesses, improving the business environment and improving city services.

"Our city cannot succeed without a vital, thriving business community," said Matt Lawson, a member of a task force subcommittee. "And our local businesses cannot thrive unless we maintain what is unique and special about Laguna. We simply have to do both."

But Laguna cannot prosper as "The City of No," he said.

Iseman said sometimes "no" is the right answer. She has heard stories of businesses spending $100,000 trying to open a store in town, only to be denied. She said it would be kinder and more prudent to say "no" from the start and possibly steer applicants in a new direction.

"We need a good planning commission to hold the line," Iseman said

She supports Ocean Avenue as an oasis of resident-serving businesses that she would not like re-zoned when the Downtown Specific Plan is reviewed. She compared it to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Among the other task force recommendations for city action:

Six recommendations were related to parking, traffic and circulation.

They included reviews of existing policies, securing permanent peripheral parking possibly at Pavilions' upper deck in the north and the Aliso Beach lot on the inland side of Coast Highway in the south. The Irvine Co. will be asked to provide or help fund shuttles to Laguna from their new communities off of Highway 133.

Make quality customer service a priority at City Hall, including the future expenditure of $25,000 to hire a consultant to review, evaluate and recommend improvements, incorporating technology where appropriate.

An annual city report card to assess services and the needs of residents and businesses.

Consider reduced fees for desirable new businesses.

Continue the Open for Business program.

"Open for Business is a terrific resource," said architect Anders Lasater. "I have been working in Laguna for 13 years and I still didn't know all the ins and outs."

Lasater said with the help of Planning Commissioners Linda Dietrich and Anne Johnson on the Open for Business Committee, the city has a new business ready to open.

"Open for Business proved that businesses can open in Laguna under existing policies and procedures," Pearson said.

The task force also recommended that the chamber commit to taking the lead on economic development in Laguna, providing advocates for new businesses and working with local publications to create a "Where to Buy What" column.

"We are eager to work with the city," chamber President Chris Keller said.

The chamber is set to launch a series of meetings conducted by the Service Corps of Retired Executives, a national nonprofit partner to the U.S. Small Business Administration with a cadre of successful executives who offer free business counseling.

A "SCORE" meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 1 p.m Wednesday at the chamber office under the Laguna Beach Library. Four-hour sessions will be held Wednesdays. Reservations are required. For more information, call (949) 494-1018.

The Visitors Bureau's contributions to Laguna's economic well-being will be the external marketing of Laguna, at which it has been so successful, and working with the chamber, local merchants and restaurants to create shopping/entertainment packages tied to events in town.

"We can take pride in the lengthy history of our city, and with the implementation of these recommendations, we can say, 'the best days are ahead,'" Lawson said.

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