Community Commentary: Costa Mesa needs to follow business model

Why is it that one city has low crime, good schools and a top quality of life for its residents and a city next door is just the opposite?

It's not the police, the teachers or the city employees who make the biggest difference in cities; it is the residents themselves who primarily give a city its character.

As we think about improving Costa Mesa, partly by running our city more like a business, we might want to look at how successful businesses do things to attract customers.

In the case of Costa Mesa, substitute the word residents for customers.

Most successful businesses decide where they want to position themselves in the market. And, they then package and sell themselves to the customer base that they want to attract and keep.

Every stable resident I've spoken to says they want Costa Mesa to be safe and clean and to have top schools and a high quality of life for residents.

Of course, that's the easy and predictable thing to say. Most smart second graders would say as much.

The hard part is having the right ideas and the will to do the things that will make it happen when those who benefit from the status quo don't want any real improvement and fight against it.

In our present day, when it is de rigueur to blame inanimate objects and forces for human caused problems, many people fail to see that the way to have such a safe and clean city is to attract residents to live, work and raise their families in Costa Mesa who are ambitious, upwardly mobile, self-sufficient and law-abiding.

People really do matter. The qualities they bring with them directly impact any city.

So, are we positioning Costa Mesa in such a way that we will attract upwardly mobile people, or are we positioning ourselves, perhaps unintentionally and unconsciously, in a different way?

What do people looking for homes see when they come to Costa Mesa? Are they seeing graffiti, rundown apartment buildings, shopping carts on street corners, homeless people sleeping along the sidewalks, many charities, people soliciting work from street corners?

And, when they dig deeper, are they seeing schools with low student scores, and are they seeing a relatively high crime rate?

We must ask ourselves if we're making Costa Mesa a comfortable place for upwardly mobile people who want to settle here and raise their families in our community or if we're making it a comfortable place for gangs, people who may need charity services and transients of all stripes.

Before you reply, you should know that according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Costa Mesa has the lowest homeownership vs. renters percentage of any city in Orange County (39.6% homeowners vs. 60.4% renters). That's not good.

I'm making no judgment here on the basic human qualities of upwardly mobile people vs. others. I'm simply saying that if Costa Mesans want to improve our city, we need to start acting consciously and deliberately with the proper business tools to attract and keep the residents — living human beings — who will help the city improve.

To attract these upwardly mobile residents, we have to look like an upwardly mobile city and we have to beat out the competition from other cities that want them to move to those cities.

Unfortunately, there are neighborhoods in Costa Mesa where the pavement on the streets is so cracked that if the asphalt weren't still a little black, and if it didn't have grass growing up through it, you'd think you were on a parched and cracked desert.

There are neighborhoods on the Westside that need pocket parks, more parking and more open space as well as a number of other improvements, including a thinning out of old, over-crowded apartment buildings.

Take a look at the W. 19th Street area. I was on the committees that put together plans to beautify and make that area a destination location.

And, it's become that. It's a destination for homeless people, drug addicts, drunks and parolees.

That's not what the committees had in mind.

By rights, W. 19th Street should be as vibrant as E. 17 Street or Second Street in Belmont Shore.

It hasn't happened. Why? Well, sure, the economy took a nose dive, but even with that, if the city government had money it could prime the pump of that area and make it a major revenue generator for the city.

Most of the money the city government receives is sucked up in salaries and pensions and very few crumbs are left over to fix tangible things in the city and for making improvements.

Why do I push improvement of the Westside so much? It's because many of us believe that the Westside is the key to improving all of Costa Mesa. Fix the Westside and you fix Costa Mesa.

With improvement of the Westside will come young upwardly mobile homeowners who will take pride in living there. We will also see a decline in crime and social dysfunction. And, we'll also see our average school scores increase.

When our city looks nicer, people will want to move here and they'll take more pride in keeping it that way.

It's like the broken window syndrome in reverse.

Whether residents realize this or not, cities are competing with each other for upwardly mobile residents just as surely as successful businesses are competing for customers.

I say it's time for Costa Mesa to consciously and deliberately compete for such residents.

M.H. MILLARD is a Costa Mesa resident and the publisher of the CM PRESS blog.

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