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.