Just because something is good for business doesn’t mean it’s good for the city.

On February 13, Downtown Inc.’s Ryan Smolar put forth their vision for Santa Ana in 2017. Downtown Inc. reflects on their successes in marketing and promoting Santa Ana as a destination for tourists, entrepreneurs, and investors, and sets out goals for stimulating the business climate in the city. It’s a business plan, but it’s presented as a collaborative civic vision for Santa Ana.

Some of this is understandable. A business group like Downtown Inc. is not a community group. They’re going to have different goals, a different vision, different metrics for success.

But while we respect that Downtown Inc’s vision is naturally business-focused, we can’t respect their claims that they want to address issues like homelessness or poverty in Santa Ana, or that they want to create a downtown with economic opportunity for all. Downtown Inc. has outlined a strategy in which new businesses and developers, tourists, and high-income transplants can thrive in Santa Ana. This strategy fails to address the needs of Santa Ana’s residents. And according to the same resources that Smolar cites in support, it is extremely likely to exacerbate homelessness and poverty in the city.

A key goal for Downtown Inc. is to “lead the development of a creative economy.” Smolar mentions urban scholars Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida as inspirations for Downtown Inc.’s community vision, and vaguely mentions “the latest books on ‘Smart Urbanism’” as guides. Yet research is very clear that Florida’s strategy of encouraging creative class economic clusters is economically beneficial primarily to the creative and professional class itself, and detrimental to blue-collar and service sector workers, who make up the majority of Santa Ana residents.

Ten years after he published his seminal work, Richard Florida himself criticized the outcomes of creative class economic clustering, finding that benefits of higher wages from creative classes accrue mostly to knowledge, professional, and creative workers, while less-skilled workers’ moderate wage gains are eaten away by more expensive housing costs. “There is a rising tide of sorts,” Florida wrote, “but it only lifts about the most advantaged third of the workforce, leaving the other 66 much further behind.” He goes on to term the effects of creative economies “not just a vicious cycle but an unsustainable one – economically, politically, and morally.”

Building a creative class economy is likely a good business strategy for most who are involved in Downtown Inc. But it isn’t a good strategy for Santa Ana residents, who have struggled with the aforementioned rising housing costs, displacement, and low incomes that Florida observes. Downtown Inc. is either being disingenuous when they promote this strategy as growing economic opportunity for everyone, or they are not fully informed on the economic development theories that they’re promoting.

We at OCCORD are dedicated to making Santa Ana a city that is economically, politically, and socially inclusive of all Santa Ana residents. We work with community members, with other nonprofits, with city officials, and with Santa Ana’s businesses.

So we pose these questions: to ourselves, to our partners and allies, to other Santa Ana stakeholders:

  • How do we create an economic future that will benefit Santa Ana residents?
  • How can we combine support for creativity, innovation, and culture in Santa Ana with a strategy that promotes equity and inclusion?
  • How can we promote culture and creativity without tokenizing Santa Ana’s Latino community and culture?
  • How can leadership and strategy development be inclusive and participatory? How can each of us collaborate better with one another?
  • How do we make our economic development sustainable?

We can’t fault Downtown Inc. for viewing Santa Ana as a “prosperity engine.” It’s a business collaborative, and their goal is to generate revenue and turn a profit. But we do fault them for promoting their business-oriented goals as community-oriented. We encourage them to continue trying to evolve their strategy into one that is truly collaborative, truly equitable, and truly sustainable for Santa Ana. And we encourage all of Santa Ana’s leaders – leaders in our local government, business leaders, community leaders – to attempt the same.

Clara Turner, Researcher – OCCORD

For a different view on this issue, consider: 

Smolar: Downtown Santa Ana Business District Reviews 2016, Looks forward to 2017

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org

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