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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on April 10th, 2012, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 5 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 5

The Far West: What's next for Guadalupe?

With Far Western Tavern relocating and funding a persistent problem, the Guadalupe City Council is making plans for the city's future

By KRISTINA SEWELL

When people hear about the city of Guadalupe, the first thing many of them think of is its iconic restaurant, the Far Western Tavern.

The eatery is on the city’s main drag, Guadalupe Street, and serves as a regal reminder of the bygone days of cattle ranching and cowboys. With its rugged exterior, Old West charm, and mouth-watering steaks, the Far Western has been an integral part of this small farming community for more than 50 years.


For Rent:
Costly state-mandated retrofits, competition with bigger Santa Maria stores, and a floundering economy have slowly squeezed business out of Guadalupe. But the City Council is looking for incentives to bring business back to the city, and to light up the empty store fronts on Main Street once more.
PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER

Renee Righetti-Fowler, granddaughter of ranching entrepreneurs Clarence and Rosalie Minetti, spent a lot of her childhood inside the tavern.

“I remember that my mom and aunt worked there during the day, and I would help the servers set the tables,” Fowler fondly recalled.

Every major family celebration Fowler can think of has taken place at the Far Western, from her own bridal shower to her wedding rehearsal dinner.

 

The Minetti family bought the property, which used to be the Palace Hotel, in 1958, and spent the next five decades making it into the legendary restaurant it is today. According to Rosalie Minetti, it was named Far Western because Clarence always said “Guadalupe was the farthest west you could go.”

 

Despite the restaurant’s continued success and lingering presence in Guadalupe, Fowler said her family has struggled in recent years to generate sales at the location. When the state demanded they pay to retrofit the unreinforced masonry building, it proved to be too much of a financial burden.


With this in mind, the family came to the tough conclusion that they would have to relocate the restaurant. Late last year, Far Western management announced to the public that they would be building a new restaurant in Old Orcutt.

“This is not a decision we came to lightly, but it is important that we keep this legacy going. We will never forget how good the city of Guadalupe has been to the restaurant and our family,” Fowler said.

Talk of the decision to relocate still brings tears to her eyes.

The Guadalupe location will remain open while construction on the new restaurant is underway. The Old Orcutt location is expected to open sometime in August.

Fowler said they’ll be working with the city of Guadalupe to come up with a viable solution for the building, though there haven’t been any meetings yet.

She expects the new location will help increase revenues because it’s centrally located at the intersection of highways 1 and 101, and will cater to a bigger population.

Despite the fact that the Guadalupe community will be losing its most beloved business, Mayor Lupe Alvarez and the rest of the City Council continue to have a positive outlook for the future and are determined to move this small farming community forward to bigger and better things.

 

A more functional family

The beginning of the decade saw the city of Guadalupe in the middle of a tumultuous, political upheaval and, as a result, the subject of a Santa Barbara County Grand Jury investigation. The City Council was an entity divided, and various staff positions were vacant. As the Sun reported in 2003, former City Administrator Frank Usher resigned, the city attorney was dismissed, the city receptionist and planning clerk left, and the business manager was fired.

The situation became so volatile that Guadalupe residents demanded a recall of two council members at the time, who were then asked to step down from their positions. The grand jury described the City Council as a “dysfunctional family.”

Guadalupe officials also struggled to obtain funding. All the infighting and deceit led to a consistent misapplication of funds and a few missed grant opportunities, not to mention two finance directors who left the city high and dry.

The idea of working together to build a better community became depressingly out of reach.

Compared to the headache-inducing politics from earlier in the decade, however, the Guadalupe City Council of 2012 seems much more stable and focused on the future.

Current Mayor Lupe Alvarez was on the council during what he calls its “dark days.”

“Things were rough then; the mayor had to step down and council members had personal vendettas,” he said. “Nothing good was happening for the city.”


NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK:
While one door closes, another opens. Guadalupe restaurant La Fogata has some new owners—Israel and Melisa Gonzalez. They’ve worked hard to makeover the restaurant, bringing tasty authentic Mexican cuisine with all the charm of a “mom ’n’ pop” shop.
PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER

The current City Council has five members: Alvarez, Virginia Ponce, Ariston Julian, John Lizalde, and John Sabedra.

According to Julian, who has been on and off of the council since 1980, there are two major differences between Guadalupe’s City Council today and ones in the past.

“Everybody now listens to each other’s concerns, there are no hidden agendas, and we vote accordingly,” Julian said. “All of the council members now are five concerned citizens that want what’s best for Guadalupe.”

Virginia Ponce, now Guadalupe’s postmaster, served on the Planning Commission earlier in the decade, so she was there to witness the former council’s decisions. But, she said, more positive things are taking place today.

“We have been through a lot, but now we have an entire city staff dedicated to moving Guadalupe forward,” Ponce said. “We have staff that comes to work on a furlough day—that’s dedication.”

With fresh faces and a new sense of determination and dedication, Alvarez said this is the time to get back to city business.

 

Moving Guadalupe forward

Since only one main street runs through Guadalupe, the number of empty storefronts is more prominent than it may be in bigger cities. Unfortunately, costly state-mandated retrofits and a weak economy have slowly pushed businesses out of the city.

Council member Sabedra was born and raised in Guadalupe; his family first settled in the town in 1906. In an interview with the Sun, Sabedra recalled the good old days when business was booming.

“There used to be a grocery store, a movie theater, and places where you could buy clothes,” he said. “I want to see Guadalupe get back to that.”

According to Sabedra, the council’s top priority is bringing business to the small town—in any way they can.

“We are facing a serious financial problem, and we need to expand business in Guadalupe,” he said.

The council has worked to amend rules affecting business practices, and the members refer to themselves as “business friendly.”

“We have to work with businesses that want to open here in order to bring jobs and revenue,” Sabedra said.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest obstacles Guadalupe faces is retail leakage. The city loses revenue and sales tax because residents head out to Santa Maria, which has more to offer in terms of big box stores, to shop. Bigger box stores, such as Vons and Albertsons, won’t bring their facilities to Guadalupe because the population is too small.

“We need to find a way to keep people here,” Julian said. “We are going to flat line if we don’t.”

Alvarez acknowledged that the bigger cities surrounding Guadalupe have more amenities to offer, so the city has to be more creative when it comes to attracting businesses and revenue.

That’s why more than a year and a half ago, Alvarez—a businessman himself—came up with an incentive program for businesses looking to open up shop in Guadalupe.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our nation’s economy,” Alvarez said. “By providing sound incentives that are designed to encourage growth and stimulate jobs, we can start working our way back out of this recession.”

Under the program, new businesses opening in Guadalupe are rewarded for creating local jobs by receiving a rebate on a portion of their building permit fees or tenant improvement permit fees. The amount of the rebate awarded depends on how many jobs the business creates.

In the long run, the sales and property tax revenues these businesses generate could put money back in the general fund and into some much-needed public services for the community.

“We need to encourage businesses to rent vacant buildings because right now, we are relying on ourselves,” Ponce said.

But Alvarez said there’s still hope for Guadalupe, especially in the tourism industry.

“We were rated one of the Top 10 Coastal escapes by Sunset Magazine,” he said. “We are going to pursue eco-tourism. Why not support what’s in our backyard?”

Council members think Guadalupe would be a great place for an RV park because of its strategic location along Highway 1, its pristine beaches, and the area’s beautiful weather.

“We have a lot of people come through here with RVs looking for places to stay, but we have to turn them away because we don’t have anything,” Sabedra said.

He revealed that a private owner wanted to build an RV park in Guadalupe, but the county shut it down. One thing Sabedra, Alvarez, and the other council members made clear is that they need the county to work with them more.

“Orcutt—who is in the same county—seems to get more help,” Sabedra said.

Added Julian: “We have to find a way to sustain jobs, increase the general fund, and keep people here.”

Baby steps

While it seems that Guadalupe has one big mountain to climb, the city has made some baby steps toward success.

“We are definitely in a much better position than we were before,” Ponce said.

“We’re trying to be positive and flexible. The council has driven into city staff that we want to be accommodating, and the city is receptive and ready,” Alvarez said.

Even though business has trickled out of Guadalupe in recent years, there are some rays of hope on its horizon.

A year ago, Ball Seed Company, one of the largest seed companies on the West Coast, submitted an application to the city to restore the Allis Chambers building at 400 Obispo St. They plan to build a 20,000-square-foot research facility with a seed storage room and a packing and shipping area.

Alvarez said the company wouldn’t be creating any jobs because it would be bringing in outside employees, but the city will still benefit from property tax revenue—all they have to do is make sure the company stays there. Alvarez said construction on the research lab is nearly complete.

Further plans for development include the 212-acre DJ Farms housing property across from the grand marble structures in the Guadalupe cemetery. The development is expected to include 800 to 980 homes, as well as a park, a new city hall, a police station, and a fire station.

The property was purchased by DJ Farms, which is working on an application. However, Alvarez said, because of the unfavorable economy, building isn’t exactly a rush priority.

And things are picking up on Main Street, where La Fogata reopened its doors for business with new owners and chefs, Israel and Melisa Gonzalez. Featuring tasty, authentic Mexican cuisine, the restaurant has drawn a lot of regulars.

“We were looking for something like this—a small town where we can get to know the locals,” Israel said.

La Fogata is in the process of developing a drive-through at the location and has plans to get involved in the community through fundraising. However, Israel admitted that they won’t be able to survive on Guadalupe’s business alone, so they’ll eventually expand to Santa Maria.

Alvarez is confident that one day Guadalupe will be able to expand, and the city is using a $4.75 million grant to make updates to sewer capacity and infrastructure so the city is prepared for a bigger population and expansion.

The mayor and the council members staunchly believe Guadalupe has a lot of potential, but like any other city in this economy, it always comes down to funding.

“This is going to take patience and years—things won’t happen overnight,” Alvarez said. “All we can do is promote ourselves and continue to be a proactive council.”

Compared to recent years, the city staff at Guadalupe is working to get the city back on track. According to Ponce, the council is more cohesive—filled with five concerned citizens ready to see Guadalupe through the hard times and balance the budget.

Sabedra agreed, adding, “Things are starting to pick up, and Guadalupe will be rediscovered. In the meantime, we are a city looking for a miracle.”

Contact Staff Writer Kristina Sewell at ksewell@santamariasun.com.




Weekly Poll
How should the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District improve its A-G completion rates?

Align graduation requirements with university entrance requirements.
Ensure that students and parents are well aware of A-Gs and what they are before high school.
Improve support services and summer school classes for students who fall behind.
Completion rates are fine as is. Not everyone wants to go to a four-year college!

| Poll Results