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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on September 12th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 28 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 19, Issue 28

Big box beltway: Santa Maria celebrates Enos Ranch as a revenue and retail attractor, while some locals question the city's development priorities

By Sun Staff, Photos by Jayson Mellom

Acres of asphalt cover what used be rows of cauliflower and strawberry fields along Santa Maria's Betteravia Road.

The Enos Ranch development shot up quickly just off Highway 101 last year, raising steel beams and vaulted white walls in a matter of months. But the towering cranes and churning cement mixers are mostly gone, and the corporate box stores and chain restaurants are open for business.

With some of it still in progress, the development is one of the largest in Santa Maria's recent history, rivaled only by the Crossroads shopping center across Betteravia, completed in 1999. Enos Ranch is part of a longstanding effort supported by the city to help assert Santa Maria as a retail destination for the greater Central Coast and establish the Betteravia area as a major shopping hub in the city.

And Santa Maria prides itself on getting things done.

At Mayor Alice Patino's State of the City address in July of 2017, she remarked on the realignment of Bradley Road during late 2016 and early 2017, which was necessary for the Enos Ranch project to break ground. Patino called the rerouting of one of the city's main arteries a "major accomplishment" that was done "in record time."

"We're really proud that we can do things in Santa Maria and be more expeditious than we already are," she added. "Development is very important."


COASTHILLS HEADQUARTERS
One of the last large buildings still under construction off Betteravia in the Enos Ranch development is the future headquarters for CoastHills Credit Union.
JAYSON MELLOM

While city officials tout how quickly the project has moved forward, the revenue it's generated, and what's still to come, Enos Ranch isn't without its detractors. Critics have voiced concern over the city's deference to corporate retailers while a development focus in the downtown core has appeared to slow. Others point to congestion in an already well-trafficked part of town, the lack of long-term high-wage jobs spurred by the project, and a development that makes Santa Maria appear like "Anytown, USA."

And despite the concerns, Enos Ranch has already seen its fair share of locals eager to shop at the city's newest commercial complex.


Crunching numbers

Enos Ranch has already help contribute to a bump in tax receipts for the city to the tune of $2 million in additional funds, according to a recent city report.

Santa Maria's fourth quarter financial report released in August of this year details that sales tax receipts increased by more than 8 percent for that period. Finance Director Mary Harvey wrote in the report that Enos Ranch contributed to the added funds by way of consumer goods, restaurants, and the hotel industry.

That boost in revenue came up at a recent forum on an upcoming city ballot measure that would indefinitely increase the city's sales tax.

"Thank goodness for Enos Ranch," said Russ Mengel, a sergeant with the Santa Maria Police Department and panelist at a Sept. 6 forum on Measure U. Mengel said the sales tax revenue collected at Enos Ranch is imperative to supporting the city's public safety services. 

Santa Maria Public Information Officer Mark van de Kamp told the Sun that Enos Ranch helped the city's regional shopping appeal. He said specific sales tax information on the development was not available because California state law prohibits a city from divulging tax records about a specific taxpayer. 

Van de Kamp did note that sales tax revenue is one "of the most volatile" revenue components in the city's budget. 

"Economic factors can contribute to wide swings in receipts," he said. 

City staff estimated that there would be a modest increase in overall sales tax revenues for 2018-19 to $23.4 million, and to $23.6 million in 2019-20. The forecast is based in part on an analysis conducted by a city-hired consultant. 

Suzanne Singh is the economic development director for the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce. She told the Sun that Enos Ranch's impact on the city and the region as a whole was major. 

"I don't think it's gonna slow," Singh said of the increase in sales tax receipts. She described the shopping center as a "regional attraction" that was not only drawing customers but also potential investors capable of bringing with them higher-wage jobs. 

"We've got quite a few groups of developers looking to come into Santa Maria and do other projects, so [Enos Ranch] has been extremely beneficial for our city overall," Singh added. 

She declined to provide details about the potential projects because negotiations between the city and business owners are ongoing. 

"But there's a lot going on," Singh said.


Development vs. identity

Some Santa Maria residents aren't swayed by  added revenue. Community-minded activists point to the amount of development in the city–and where it's centered–as a cause for concern.

At the Sept. 6 forum on Measure U, Santa Maria resident Gale McNeeley expressed worry that the Enos Ranch development has taken, and will continue to take, attention and money from the effort to revitalize downtown. 

Plans to redesign the area around Broadway and Main streets, and thus re-attract residents, business owners, and consumers to Santa Maria's downtown shops, have been in the works for years.

In October 2017, the city hosted two downtown design workshops where community members discussed their priorities for Santa Maria's downtown. In January 2018, the city asked similar questions in an online survey, which hundreds of residents completed. That month, the City Council approved downtown's first mixed-use development since the city took aim at revitalization. It's a multi-story building on Broadway and Main Street that promises to provide space for retail, commercial, and housing. It's a type of project that's never existed in Santa Maria before, the Chamber of Commerce's Singh explained.   

Still, McNeeley said at the forum that little progress has been made downtown, and the city's promise of a flourishing, safe, and comfortable space to gather is years out of reach. That is especially true now, McNeeley said, with the corporations at Enos Ranch diverting business and community focus that could have been put toward supporting local businesses and development in the area that should be the heart of the city. 

"The mayor, when she ran for mayor, she said that small businesses were the core of the community and she wanted to work for small businesses," McNeeley said at the forum. "And then she and the City Council put all the business out in Enos Ranch instead. You see what's happening to the downtown as a result of that?"

But Santa Maria Community Development Director Chuen Ng said that a vibrant downtown can, and will, coexist with big-box developments like Enos Ranch. 

While Enos Ranch is a freeway-oriented development where consumers from in and out of town might go to make a quick purchase or to grab some fast food on the road, Ng said the ideal downtown would offer an entirely different set of services. 

Downtown, he said, should be a place where residents can walk around for hours, visit multiple stores and restaurants, or go out on a date. It should be a place where people can gather for concerts and other community events, where people want to spend time eating on a patio outside, or working at a cafe. 

That, Ng said, is not something the businesses at Enos Ranch will ever provide. 

"I think they're two totally different developments," he said. "Ultimately we want [downtown] to be a destination, a place the city can be proud of, where residents want to go to, where people gather." 

That kind of atmosphere, Ng said, takes time to create. In an area as challenging as downtown Santa Maria, where a giant mall and traffic-heavy streets rub shoulders with the historic buildings and small businesses that are present in most downtowns, revitalization and beautification has been especially difficult. 

But a streetscape plan that would improve Broadway and Main streets using a Caltrans grant is in its draft form, Ng said. And although he said he couldn't get too specific, the city is in the midst of talking with some "interested users" about the future of downtown. 

Planning for the revitalization of downtown is pretty much over, Ng said, and the city just needs developers and business owners to move into the area. 

"To some extent, I'm done talking about planning," Ng said. "I just want to see something get built."



ON THE CLOCK
SLO-based developer NKT Commercial applied for development permits for Enos Ranch in 2015. Now, just three years later, the first commercial phase of the project is nearing completion.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
Low-wage workforce

While some of Santa Maria's activist base is concerned about development, others question how Enos Ranch will help the city's blue-collar backbone.

Lucas Zucker is the policy director for Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), an organization focused on housing and public transportation issues affecting the poor and working class in Santa Maria. Zucker said the city is wracked by a lack of affordable housing, which threatens to displace underemployed workers. 

While developments such as Enos Ranch do bring in much-needed jobs, there's a reason to be cautious, Zucker explained.

"They are often very low-wage retail jobs," Zucker said. "If we're not creating the affordable housing for that workforce then we get the problem, as is the case in Santa Maria, where you have a very high cost of living, low wages, and a significant rent burden."

Big-box retailers such as Enos Ranch occupants Dick's Sporting Goods, Old Navy, and Petco pay starting salaries ranging between $9 and $13 an hour in California, according to estimates from the employment website glassdoor.com. That amounts to an annual income of less than $30,000 for the average full-time retail worker. Once housing costs factor in, it becomes an even gloomier picture. According to the website RentCafe, which tracks local rent prices, the average price of a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Maria is hovering around $1,500 a month.

Zucker said that many working-class Santa Marians haven't seen their incomes raise with rents rates.

"Affordable housing is at the heart of this," he said. "Even if we are trying to raise wages, those are being eaten up by housing costs that are increasing even faster than wages. There's almost no point."

Corporate developments like Enos Ranch may deliver sales tax revenue and jobs, Zucker added, but the bulk of that economic activity doesn't stay within the community. And with the steady rise in popularity of online shopping giants such as Amazon, more and more brick-and-mortar retailers are shutting their doors. Most recently, parent company Lowe's announced it would close all Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH) stores, including Santa Maria's, citing a lack of profits.

"It may not be the best long-term investment to just invest in places where people can go for cheap shopping," Zucker said. "We need to invest in something that's more than shopping."

The Chamber of Commerce's Singh argued that while Enos Ranch may not provide the high, "living-wage" jobs that some say the city should be pushing for, the business hub is a piece of the foundation for future growth.

"Sometimes the people that are skeptical are those that haven't been anywhere else, are afraid of change, or NIMBYs–nobody wants anything in their backyard," she said. "But they want the places to shop."

For community activist and local artist Ruben Espinoza, the development isn't necessarily a negative, but he would have liked to a see a more complete illustration of the city's overall character at Enos Ranch.

"I see the growth that's happening and it's nice," he said. "But it's becoming like an 'Anytown, USA.' It's starting to look like Simi Valley or Glendale. Those big-box stores like Costco, you see them in Oxnard. The uniqueness of Santa Maria and the culture here is being removed."

The city's Latino roots are what make Santa Maria distinct, he said, but the city's plans for expansion seem to cater to or attract more outsiders. He said he'd like to see more of a focus on issues that affect Santa Marians more directly, like affordable housing, adding that it often feels like community concerns fall on deaf ears.

"I feel like we were heard, but not listened to," Espinoza said. "I think the developers have their ear. They're the ones that have the power because they are the ones who are spending the money and creating the jobs. But it's the residents who are having these things imposed on them." 


Down the road

The city has responded to some of the complaints about Enos Ranch, mainly the traffic congestion created along Betteravia Road and the off-ramp from Highway 101. Santa Maria recently put out a bid to contractors to widen the off-ramp since the number of right-turn lanes was reduced from two to one, often backing up cars onto the highway. 

The Chamber of Commerce's Singh said that the traffic issues are all part of the redevelopment process and that locals can look to the LA area for what unmanageable congestion looks like.

"There's always a trade-off when you grow, but usually the growing pains are better than not growing at all," she said.

Santa Maria is also considering plans to address another common complaint from local motorists–the need for more access points to the city's Costco store along Bradley Road.

Bradley is also the future site of several car dealerships that were approved for development by the Santa Maria Planning Commission earlier this year. The auto complex will be the new home of the Honda and Toyota dealerships, along with Home Motors and two other unnamed auto dealers, according to Santa Maria Community Development Department Principal Planner Neda Zayer.


NOD TO HISTORY
The historic Smith-Enos House currently sits at the location of a future Santa Maria park, where the restored house will serve as a centerpiece with interpretive information about the city’s agricultural history.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

"They could move forward for building permits at any time, but have not yet submitted any," she told the Sun via email.

The auto dealerships represent some of the last commercial development in the Enos Ranch area. The rest of the land is slated for community facilities and high density housing.

The main developer of Enos Ranch, SLO-based NKT Commercial, sold the planned residential portion of the land at the corner of Battles Road and College Drive to the Towbes Group.

Towbes proposed a three-story apartment complex near Enos Ranch called the Easton Plaza Apartments, which the Planning Commission approved in February 2017. The complex will include 318 apartments of one- to three-bedroom units as well as thousands of square feet of shared lawn and recreational facilities.

Requiring high-density housing in the area was part of Santa Maria's general plan and the Enos Ranch specific plan, along with community facilities like parks and schools. 

In 2017, the Santa Maria-Bonita School District acquired the land that neighbors the site of the proposed apartment complex along College Drive, paying NKT Commercial nearly $5.9 million from Measure T bond money. The district put forward plans to the city's Planning Commission for a campus with two-story buildings and sports fields.

NKT Commercial gifted the last remaining piece of land between College Drive and Bradley Road to Santa Maria to be the location of a new park. That park will be the home of the Smith-Enos House, the historic farmhouse that sat at the top of the hill, visible to Highway 101 commuters for more than a century.

The house currently sits at the future park's location, and the city plans to put a new roof on the building before winter, explained Recreation and Parks Department Director Alex Posada. There are already volunteers who want to paint the house, Posada said, but the restoration will require a fundraising effort that will be spearheaded by the department's nonprofit arm, the People for Leisure and Youth (PLAY).

The restored home will serve as the park's centerpiece, with interpretive historical exhibits, Posada said. An events building is in the planning stages for the park as well. That idea came from the city's outreach to community groups, Posada said, that wanted to see an indoor space for large events available for organizations and residents.

Santa Maria's proposed design for the building is a barn theme, after the barn that sat behind the farmhouse long before the development began, he said. It's a nod to the old Santa Maria and its rural identity right in the middle of the new, large-scale development.

"In the time that I've been here, Santa Maria has always kind of strived to be the economic hub on the Central Coast as far as retail goes, being the place where people go to shop," Posada said. "I think this project strengthens that position, but it was also done on really the last piece of agricultural land in the city limits, so our goal was to preserve a little bit of history, keeping in mind that there was an agricultural past and trying to honor some of those families that made the valley what it is today." 


Staff Writers Kasey Bubnash and Spencer Cole, Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose, and Managing Editor Joe Payne all contributed to this story. The Sun editorial staff can be reached at mail@santamariasun.com.




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