Wellness District Proposal Gets Mixed Response From Santa Ana Council

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

Santa Ana Councilman Sal Tinajero speaks during a council meeting.

A proposed “wellness district” in downtown Santa Ana received a mixed response Tuesday from City Council members, with a majority supporting adding new branding to Fourth Street to reflect its Latino character, but rejecting other aspects of the proposal including subsidies for health-focused small businesses.

The proposal, advocated by community activists, calls for a series of city policies aimed at improving health and wellness among the city’s largely Latino residents. One of the central ideas is officially branding the Fourth Street business area as “Calle Cuatro,” which is how it is known throughout much of the Latino community here and elsewhere.

Supporters say the measure would help boost economic development and community well-being, and cite a study commissioned last year by The California Endowment that said the city could bring in an additional $137 million in spending to the downtown by bringing back Latino customers who, despite living so close to the downtown, have been lost to big-box retailers.

Meanwhile, critics say it would hinder the existing business growth in downtown and that the re-branding smacks of reverse racism and would send an unwelcoming message to newcomers.

Council members Tuesday attempted to stake out a middle ground, with a majority voicing their support for adding “Calle Cuatro” branding and three other key points in the proposal, including: providing land for urban micro farms, creating a “mercadito” marketplace for local vendors in a city-owned building and establishing a community advisory committee on economic development issues.

“We can’t neglect the fact that the Latino community has contributed a lot to our community,” said Councilman David Benavides, referring to the “Calle Cuatro” proposal.

When it comes to micro farms, council members said they supported the idea of providing city-owned land for a pilot project, but suggested that they would require payment for its use.

Other aspects of the proposal, such as financial incentives for wellness-focused businesses and creating an immigrant affairs office, were rejected by the council.

“I am not, not have I ever been, in favor of giving a developer a break,” said Councilman Sal Tinajero, adding that if people participate in business it should be at “a fair market rate.”

Some council members also suggested that favoring wellness-themed businesses would disrupt the growth of restaurants and other businesses that attract customers from other parts of Orange County.

“Let’s be very careful, because things are working well,” said Mayor Miguel Pulido.  “There are more people than we’ve seen in a heck of a long time.”

As for other aspects of the proposal, council and staff members largely said efforts are already underway.  The Council plans to discuss the proposal again in more detail at a retreat on May 9.

Approvals of any of new policies or actions would take place at future council meetings.

Nineteen residents spoke about the issue Tuesday, mostly in support of the wellness district.

Among the speakers was America Bracho, founder and CEO of Latino Health Access and one of the city’s most high-profile Latino leaders.

“We have witnessed for all of these years the lack of investment” by the city in the neighborhoods of central Santa Ana, Bracho said, adding that the proposed advisory committee must include working-class residents, not just business owners.

Another aspect of the proposal – a mercadito – would provide Santa Ana’s Latino merchants with an important opportunity to sell their arts and goods, said Omar De La Riva.

“Something like this market would give us the ability to showcase what our community is made of,” De La Riva said, noting that about 80 percent of Santa Ana residents are Latino.

Others questioned the notion of having government subsidize certain types of businesses in downtown.

“It’s just not sustainable, and it’s unrealistic,” said Philip Escobedo, adding that he doesn’t understand how it would work without using taxpayer money.

Heninger Park resident Ginelle Hardy, meanwhile, was concerned about the how the wellness district extended into her neighborhood. Latino revitalization could conflict with her neighborhood’s historic character, she said, asking that Heninger Park be left out of the proposal.

A leader in the wellness district effort, Ana Urzua of Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities, said that if central Santa Ana residents were to shift $300 of their existing spending each year to downtown, the downtown area would be well on its way to generating the $137 million in additional revenues cited in the endowment-funded report.

That sparked pushback from the mayor, who criticized Urzua’s perspective as “myopic,” saying the city should be taking a bigger-picture approach than appealing to the 45,000 residents in the immediate vicinity of downtown.

“We need to be attracting people from outside the city, not looking inward and being myopic,” said Pulido.

He also suggested that the city instead invest in one of the wellness district’s key supporters, El Centro Cultural de Mexico.

“If we’re going to take some money and celebrate culture, let’s do it in a significant way,” Pulido said, adding that he’d rather be supporting El Centro. “Let’s figure out how to make a real center where maybe the city and others can assist in that.”

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

  • Martin Armies

    Interesting quote by Councilmember Tinajero: “I am not, not have I ever been, in favor of giving a developer a break,”. That was a clear dig at Sarmiento whose $5 million gift with $2 million profit to his former Planning Commissioner buddy Mario Turner was pulled from the agenda at the last moment. My sources tell me that the 5 Councilmembers excluded from this, with his attempted railroading of staff into working/holding their noses on that transaction in lieu of a competitive process that may have generated a better deal for the City, are furious at him for his heavy handedness and blatant dishonest conflict of interest.

    Sarmiento’s 15 minutes are clearly up. The dude barely won in 2012 against a heavily outspent unknown. There are rumors of an investigation into his Santa Ana residency (apparently he really resides in Orange Park Acres) that may lead to voter fraud charges being filed (when this privately funded investigation is complete and the evidence is released to the public). Combine that with what sources say could be a potential whistleblower lawsuit and HUD investigation over the shady AMCAL dealings and big scandals are about to hit in Santa Ana. Looks like another City of Bell situation is coming! Get the popcorn!!

    The Wellness District folks are deluded if they think the City is going to work with them. Homeless problems are festering, an undermanned police force is barely able to keep the peace (or not given all the shootings taking place), overcrowding in substandard units is getting worse, city staff morale is at its lowest point ever and no one with any talent will work there. Yet, the Council still insists on giving paydays to their friends rather than do what’s best for Santa Ana residents. There is no leadership in the City now, no groundswell of energy to make a difference. The City is just trying to hang until the scandals engulf it.

    Heck, the hipster led renaissance in Downtown had nothing to do with anything City Hall did yet now they want to choke this success by raising parking rates?! And they are paying someone $500,000 a year to come up with that idea??!! No wonder the City still struggles and has a horrible reputation throughout the County and region. The leadership is just inept right now.

    Santa Ana: Where Progress and Prosperity Goes To Get Snuffed Out

  • 6eaie2

    Subsidies are embedded in many supply and production chains, yet people often don’t associate those subsidies with the end products. For example, corn farmers receive significant subsidies, whether their farm products are converted to methanol for fuel or pulverized to make Doritos and other corn-based, long-shelf-life junk food. Yet the raw materials that comprise a healthy diet, such as highly perishable fresh fruits and vegetables, don’t receive those subsidies and the distributors, not the farmers, take most of the risk. That requires prices for fresh food to be higher to compensate for the short shelf life of the product.

    Since fresh food is often very expensive compared to preserved food, we really need to shift at least some of the subsidies to the distribution chain to enable lower income people to buy more of them, thereby improving access to healthier ingredients.

    A wellness district need not have geographical boundaries to be effective.

  • Steve W.

    “Another aspect of the proposal – a mercadito – would provide Santa Ana’s Latino merchants with an important opportunity to sell their arts and goods, said Omar De La Riva”

    Huh? The city is going to operate an indoor marketplace,in which only Latinos can operate a business? Is that even legal, let alone right? It’s like we’ve come full circle to the days of separate-but-equal.