Sounding Off: City can't be so lax in business

Daily Pilot

It's prudent to occasionally pick at the scab of previously settled issues, perhaps never more so than during difficult times. A city's growth strategy is one such issue. Steve Smith contends that Costa Mesa lacks a strategy "for long-term growth and prosperity." (City Life: "The roots of the budget crisis," June 1). He must mean, though, that we lack a robust and proactive one, because we actually do have a strategy, although it is reactive and relatively weak.

Costa Mesa likes to provide catalysts for growth, but not directions for growth to take. The city provides adequate infrastructure — streets, water, sewers, police and fire — low taxes and minimal regulation. Then the city gets out of the way of businesses and developers, although it is willing to step back in on an individual basis when it has special needs.

A passive policy such as Costa Mesa's was entirely appropriate for the city when it was new and little more than undeveloped farmland. The fledgling city needed to attract new investment in order to survive.

But Costa Mesa is a mature city; it has been mostly built-out for years. So it's prudent to ask why Costa Mesans would still want a policy that essentially lets other people decide what happens here — especially because we're struggling through an economic meltdown that has proven that aggressive entrepreneurs can be trusted to dangerously socialize their risks and costs while vigorously guarding their private profits.

If change is warranted, though, it will not come easily. Historical election results imply that a reactive mindset is well within the comfort zone of most voters in Costa Mesa.

Another indicator of Costa Mesa's conservative inclinations is its early and strong enthusiasm for the John Birch Society. In 1962, nine years after incorporating, young Costa Mesa had five chapters of the society, second only to the eight chapters in the much older and larger city of Santa Ana.

Political dynamics may also play a part in a city's resistance to having a long-range vision. People with power generally don't like to give up any of it. A long-term plan can tie council members' hands by constraining them from granting individual constituents' and individual businesses' day-to-day requests.

Finally, an additional obstacle is provided by our neighbor to the south and east. Costa Mesa and Newport Beach are locked in a close, symbiotic embrace that makes it difficult for Costa Mesa to act truly independently.

Costa Mesa — with its low-rent Westside, its large low-wage immigrant population and its business-friendly tax and regulatory environment — serves as the "other side of the tracks" for the higher-end socioeconomic population of Newport Beach.

Newport Beach residents find Costa Mesa convenient for manufacturing and retail businesses, and volunteering at its many charities. While Newport Beach citizens cannot vote in Costa Mesa elections, they wield significant clout through their business, financial and political connections, a clout that would naturally resist change.

In return for all this, Costa Mesa benefits by having a source of sales tax revenue that is usually stable and somewhat diversified from the major regional sources provided by South Coast Plaza and Harbor Boulevard auto retailers. And the city's poor are better off than they would be if Newport Beach didn't exist.

If Smith had in mind a city with a proactive strategy for long-term growth and prosperity, he might have been thinking of our neighbor to the west. Several decades ago, the people of Huntington Beach decided to improve their beach side. They treated the project as a business would; they planned for the long term, acquired property, and romanced desirable tenants. Now it is a destination spot, bringing in more profits for businesses and more revenues from visitors. This helps smooth out financial rough spots for Huntington taxpayers. Costa Mesa could benefit from such a proactive strategy.

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