The Santa Ana City Council took another step forward in establishing a proposed “wellness district” in the downtown, voting Tuesday to begin drafting a resolution and figuring out how much it will cost to implement.

The proposal, advocated by a number of residents and community activists, calls for a series of city policies aimed at preserving the downtown as a center for Latino commerce, by promoting community wellness and supporting local vendors.

Although council members are all generally supportive of the wellness district, the vote to draft a resolution by the next city council meeting was split 4-3, with those voting no arguing that their colleagues were rushing to push the proposal through.

Those voting yes were Mayor Miguel Pulido, Councilwoman Michele Martinez, and councilmen Vincent Sarmiento and David Benavides. The no votes included Councilwoman Angelica Amezcua, and councilmen Roman Reyna and Sal Tinajero.

Supporters say the measure would help boost economic development and community well-being. They 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.

Although the original proposal pitched by community activists included 16 different points, ranging from subsidies for health-focused businesses, to creating an immigrant affairs office, Tuesday’s council vote directs city staff to draft a resolution and implementation plan supporting four.

They include the branding Fourth Street as “Calle Cuatro,” supporting the creation of microfarms and a mercadito, and creating a community advisory committee on economic development.

“This lifts everyone up to create a more equitable society,” said Ana Urzua, campaign coordinator with Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities, in an emailed statement after the vote.

Critics of the proposal, which include some residents and members of the business community, say it would hinder the existing business growth in the downtown and that the re-branding smacks of reverse racism and would send an unwelcoming message to newcomers.

Tuesday, supporting council members said the rebranding of Fourth Street would serve to celebrate the street’s history as a shopping center and gathering place for the surrounding Latino community.

“I don’t think it’s branding, it’s way-finding,” Sarmiento said. “A lot of our folks are monolingual Spanish speakers, and let’s celebrate that, that’s not a bad thing.”

They were also unified in support for the microfarm proposal, which would set aside a parcel where residents could cultivate their own crops, with the idea of increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Martinez said creating microfarms would not only reduce obesity, but put the community on a track toward sustainability, especially in light of the state’s water crisis.

“We as local communities in Southern California, we’re going to have to figure out ways to produce our own food,” Martinez said.

Some members of the council expressed reservations about a proposed “mercadito,” or a small marketplace where local merchants and residents could sell their own goods.

Tinajero and Sarmiento said that while the city would support the idea of a mercadito, it shouldn’t be sponsored by taxpayer dollars.

“We have people who are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to open up a food court and farmer’s market — I don’t think we should promote, as a city, business that will compete with the private sector,” Tinajero said.

“We could be supportive of the efforts of the community to develop one, like we did with the farmer’s market. It’s not our farmer’s market, but we supported that effort,” Sarmiento added.

They also removed language from the proposal asking for city sponsorship of certain community events, and replaced it with a community advisory committee.

Martinez questioned why, separate from the wellness district proposal, city staff had yet to present the council with a policy for city sponsorship of events, a policy she has requested in the past.

“I specifically asked that, before the budget cycle starts … some kind of draft come before the city council,” Martinez said, irate.
Martinez was irate,

As to the community advisory committee, which would weigh in on downtown economic development issues, Tinajero questioned why the council should establish a new committee, as opposed to expanding the existing Santa Ana Business Council.

“I don’t know if we need to reinvent the wheel here and form a separate ad hoc committee, or if we just want to…include a couple more folks,” said Tinajero.

Sarmiento said the committee wouldn’t be that much trouble to establish.

“To me the economic advisory task force is a good idea … I don’t think it’s really going to increase our expenses by that much given what we’re talking about,” Sarmiento said.

Amezcua had offered a substitute motion to delay the vote until July, citing the need to gather more information, but didn’t get enough support.

Martinez, meanwhile, was impatient.

“I think we’ve hashed this out enough. If you don’t want to do it, have the courage and the leadership to tell the public now,” Martinez said.

Tinajero pushed back.

“If you asked me to vote right now, I’m going to vote no, because I want it to be right,” Tinajero replied.

Reyna, who also voted no, criticized the council majority for being too haphazard in what it decides to support.

“Every single thing cannot be a priority. I don’t think we’ve decided what our priorities are, and we’re spending time willy-nilly on activities…that we’re not going to have the financial assistance to accomplish,” Reyna said.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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