Love where you live!
LA MESA -- When Sarah Golden and Scott Feldsher moved into a home in the hills above La Mesa a couple years ago, it was, in a way, a subtle sign. A young, highly educated couple -- she a teacher, he a theater professional -- found the town charming and could picture a few of the quaint boutiques along La Mesa Boulevard attracting a few more.
Just a few years earlier, this type of couple would have bought a place in Kensington or Hillcrest and it was a good sign that they chose to brave the territory east of I-15 and inject new blood into La Mesa.
Recently Golden and Feldsher spent a vacation week traveling in California visiting what Golden referred to as "some of the cutest damned towns the state has to offer." She listed: "Petaluma, Ferndale, Eureka (in its darling waterfront development) and Carmel.''
"All seem to have one thing in common," Golden said. “A united goal on the part of the 'high street' merchants to make visitors' experience as charming and conducive as possible. Clean streets, public benches and landscaping, unified decor, full vacancy in all the storefronts, long retail hours.''
Entering 2013, and with the city putting the Centennial celebration behind, it seems timely to think about Golden's unstated comparison of La Mesa, her chosen residence, and other places in our region that are thriving and moving in unison even amid the challenges brought on by a revolution in retail.
It is fair to say that, for all its charms, La Mesa does not move easily within its harness. If La Mesa Village is this city's symbolic heart and core, it stands as a testament to this fractious nature. The Village Merchants Association is a small, dedicated band of entrepreneurs who carry the weight for a majority of business owners whose engagement in civic affairs largely stop at their store's front doors.
The La Mesa Chamber of Commerce holds several fund-raising events each year and pays its executive but a list of its accomplishments in assisting local business or generating a common voice for the small business owner frankly runs the gamut from A to B. New members have complained about a lack of services after the "ribbon cutting" ceremony dies away.
The City of La Mesa is run by a City Manager form of government that is highly professional and efficient, but, like all City Manager cities, can lack the sort of decisive, collective thinking and action that seem to be generated by a more directly engaged elected class.
The city's titular leader, Mayor Art Madrid, three decades into his service for this city, had this to say about the Merchants Association and the Chamber of Commerce: "The city's desire, over many years, to work collaboratively with these organizations has fallen on deaf ears and continues to receive false promises."
Unfortunately, even as its Centennial ends, La Mesa continues to show signs that it may not have matured enough to handle the pressures and challenges it is increasingly facing.
Said City Councilman Ernie Ewin: "There are local communities that are finding solutions to the challenge of strengthening our business/retail/professional mixes. We need to complete an analysis of our strengths/ weaknesses/opportunities and external threats and make sure our government is helping with the process.''
DOWN THE AVENUE
As you drive east from San Diego along University Avenue or El Cajon Boulevard, the urban struggles of America's Finest City can be seen between the "string of pearls" that is Hillcrest, Kensington, North Park, the College area. Beyond these engaging neighborhoods, the streetscape and residential housing becomes boring at best, desolate at worst. Not until you approach the La Mesa city line do things start to improve and, frankly, not immediately. (Picture right shows a vacant and refuse strewn El Cajon Boulevard lot at La Mesa's western portal.)
One of the reasons discussion of development in La Mesa is so focused on the La Mesa Village is that most of West La Mesa is already largely indistinguishable from the city of San Diego neighborhoods to its west.
Travel La Mesa Boulevard east from El Cajon Boulevard and, in totality, it is easy to see what some see as the "quaint and timeless Village" being quickly overtaken too. The commercial mix is increasingly becoming more real estate office and less higher traffic, charming retail. For every Gingham, Mostly Mission, Cosmos, Blumenthal Jewelry, O'Dunn Fine Art and Time & Treasures there are twice that number of properties housing retail businesses that have no place in a downtown that aspires to attract shoppers from afar -- or near for that matter.
Realtors and other service offices are setting up shop at a quick pace too. If La Mesa believes its future rests in being seen as the Quaintest Little Office Park in East County, then it is well on its way.
REAL CHALLENGES LOOM
The consolidation of La Mesa's Fire Department with El Cajon and Lemon Grove may have been good government, but it was also a sign that the ability of small municipalities in large metropolitan areas to maintain their own services and fully control their own destiny is at risk. The financial pressures that forced that merger could easily lead to police consolidation and, at some point, the tools La Mesa's leaders can use to maintain its charm and character can slip from their grasp little by little. Already the city's ability to rebuild its own main boulevard rests on winning grants from the federal government and the San Diego Association of Goverments (SANDAG).
As La Mesa Village continues its drift toward office services, its contribution in sales tax will continue its decline. An eventually redeveloped Grossmont Center may add to the city's property tax base, but if its final mix of retail and residential contributes less sales tax, the city could face another reduction in income.
Failure to attract new and engaging business to the city could also contribute to La Mesa eventually becoming simply an indistinguishable series of trolley stations and stop lights in an uninterupted stretch of urban sprawl that marches from the City of San Diego and on into El Cajon.
THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS
Unfortunately, at this key time in its history, La Mesa seems stuck in a leadership miasma. Its political class is small and can look reactive instead of visionary. Nobody responds more quickly to complaints than this set of elected officials, but wait for a clear expression of the city's direction and ambitions and you might be waiting a long while.
Mayor Art Madrid has been in office for decades and has generated an opposition that is focused more on his personality and style than on spurring a substantive discussion of key issues or alternative approaches. While Madrid has pursued an agenda, none of the other four council members in recent years have presented a cohesive counter view nor have they fully joined Madrid in his efforts to revive La Mesa Village. Giving out plaudits and thanks to veterans and civic groups at meetings can't be mistaken for leadership.
The last election brought a new member to the City Council mix, but time will tell if that will be enough to move the council from reactive managers of a civil service-shaped vision to leaders clearly articulating challenges and suggesting a strategy for achieving the goal of keeping this community as livable as it is today.
Just a few years ago, local merchants rose up to recapture business leadership in forming the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce, but except for the occasional fundraiser or politician breakfast, it remains difficult to identify anything that effort has brought to spur new business or help counter the challenges local Mom and Pop businesses have faced.
The La Mesa Village Merchants Association, for its part, has managed despite anemic membership rolls, to maintain special events like Oktoberfest, The Back to the '50s Car Show and Christmas in the Village, but it has struggled to build anything approaching consensus about how to keep this key community asset from slipping further into mediocrity.
Clearly what is needed is some injection of vision and leadership that can produce the kind of united goals Golden described in other towns, something residents, politicians and business leaders can understand and coalesce around. Something a tourist might want to ride the trolley to visit.
Scott Kidwell is a member of a loose alliance -- the La Mesa Citizens Oversight Group -- of local critics of the current political direction of the city. His group maintains a website and fires off pointed e-mails questioning the city's handling of its pensions, the travel spending of its mayor and generally is concerned with the size and cost of government. They dig for documents to support their views, but generally have been much better at saying what Art Madrid and his city shouldn't do, than suggesting an affirmative course of action on most subjects.
"Of course, as long as humans are involved, personalities will be a factor to deal with," Kidwell said. "It can be difficult to separate the personality from the proposal. Term limits, such as passed recently in Thousand Oaks, Ca., would also be a beneficial step away from an entrenched political class and towards a healthier La Mesa Citizen run government.''
Add that kind of loyal opposition to that the on-going alienation among Madrid, the Merchants Association and the Chamber's executive director, Mary England, and hopes for unity of purpose can appear quixotic in this town.
THE ROAD FORWARD
In a larger, more populous city, one might suggest doing what other cities do when there is a leadership or vision vacuum: Abandon the City Manager form of government in favor of a directly-elected mayor who serves with a clear mandate to lead and the tools and bully pulpit to do it. San Diego recently did this.
But that would be a costly move for La Mesa and, in a city of this size, it is not certain there would always be a mayoral candidate with the executive talents to professionally manage what is, in the end, a complex public business. La Mesa has been blessed with solid, professional management.
Throughout its Centennial year, there were many events and a lot of celebration of the good things this small American town has managed to accomplish. It was well-deserved months of back-patting.
But the future that stretches in front of it will require more of the city's leadership than was asked as it was simply riding the growth engine from farming community to suburban town. La Mesa's long-time mayor is aging, as is the long-serving council member Ruth Sterling. If the leadership that is to follow is going to keep succeeding as its predecessors have, it would be good to begin seeing a vision that goes beyond simply kvetching about Madrid's perceived failings.
La Mesa may still be the Jewel of the Hills, but to remain that way it needs a strategy, not just a motto.
Chris Lavin is the Editor of LaMesaToday.com.