Leaders of Santa Ana’s Downtown Inc. gave a presentation at the Oct. 3 City Council meeting intended to counter criticism from opponents who say the organization does little for the mostly Latino downtown merchants.
The organization has supported festivals like the annual Dia de Los Muertos, and has been researching the possibility of holding a Quinceanera expo, said Vicky Baxter, Downtown Inc. executive director.
Downtown Inc. supporters say that the organization’s services are vital to transforming the area into a vibrant downtown. Yet some merchants say the organization aims to promote the restaurants and bars in the popular Artists Village, to gentrify the downtown area and to push out Latino merchants.
Baxter made a public call for merchants to attend next month’s Downtown Inc. Board of Directors meeting, a declaration that was intended to dispel accusations that board meetings are not open to small retailers.
“We’re asking our retailers to come to the table and let’s talk about how we can bring people downtown to shop, to buy,” Baxter said.
She said Downtown Inc., which is entering its third year of operation, is following a plan used by many downtown booster organizations. The plan is to spend the first two years bringing the restaurant corridors to life, then to focus on retail shops.
“This is the year for retail. We will do whatever it takes to help retail this year, because that was our plan,” Baxter said.
Council meetings have for several months been the stage of an ongoing controversy over the special property tax district that funds Downtown Inc. A minority of property owners, who owned a majority of the property value and therefore a majority of the votes, passed the tax. The result was the doubling and even tripling of some property tax bills.
Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez, Downtown Inc.’s most high-profile critic, was dismissive of the presentation and accompanying annual report and repeated her call for the board to diversify its membership.
Most of the board members are not Latino. The only two Mexican immigrants who were on the board said they resigned because the organization broke promises to promote Latino businesses.
Baxter had said the one board member was forced to resign because he was behind on his property tax bill, and the other board member’s request for promotions were simply too expensive to accommodate.
“The conversation is not over, and this [annual report] is an amazing joke,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez has been pressing for a public hearing to dissolve the tax district but hasn’t been able to persuade her council colleagues to support the move.
She tried a different tack at this week’s meeting, pushing for an advisory election to determine whether the tax district can survive without the city’s support. As a downtown property owner, the city voted for the special tax, which would not have passed without the city’s votes.
City Attorney Joe Straka advised that council members couldn’t make such a decision at the meeting because it wasn’t on the agenda, a requirement of the state’s open meeting law.
Alvarez asked to have the advisory election placed on the next council meeting agenda.
Clarification: A previous version of this post did not fully explain the reasons for the resignations of the Mexican board members of Downtown Inc.
— ADAM ELMAHREK