As construction on one of Orange County’s biggest public works projects, the OC Streetcar, tears up most of downtown Santa Ana’s Fourth Street, small business owners keep fighting to stay afloat while their customers’ access is largely cut off.
Last month, countywide transportation officials said no. But in March, they got the City of Santa Ana to take them into consideration.
Today, small business owners are calling on county supervisors to consider joining the City of Santa Ana with direct subsidies aimed at helping them survive the $509 million construction project that’s expected to go on through next year tearing up streets and installing rail infrastructure not seen in a century.
Because of a glitch in recent election maps adopted by county supervisors, these merchants now have a different county supervisor representing their interests on the governing dais.
County Supervisor Katrina Foley is proposing approving up to $1.2 million in aid to businesses.
Foley proposes to establish a small business recovery grant program, and the $1.2 million would come from her supervisorial district’s allocation of American Rescue Plan Act dollars for Covid-19 economic relief, according to the agenda for the Tuesday morning meeting.
A public April 26 email to supervisors from Delilah Snell, owner of Alta Baja Market on Fourth Street, thanked Foley “for stepping up” despite the fact that only recently, she became Santa Ana’s county representative on the board.
Before redrawn district maps took effect this year, that charge had fallen on Supervisor Andrew Do, who Snell did not have as kind of words for.
“Supervisor Do, you have visited my store before, so it disappoints me that you have remained silent about all the suffering the Fourth Street businesses are going through. You represented most of Santa Ana for years – do you not care about what your former constituents are going through? Please, speak up. We need you all to please speak up and do something,” Snell wrote.
In March, Santa Ana City Council members already approved a total of $1.5 million in aid, but it’s taken time to roll out and amounted to up to $10,000 per business.
Merchants at the time said the city money alone wouldn’t be enough to make up for what they lost. So those with their livelihoods staked on Calle Cuatro turned next to the $x billion agency steering the Streetcar project: The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA).
The next month, they came in numbers and demanded begged OCTA’s Board of Directors – a collection of local elected officials, appointed from across the county – to contribute to what Santa Ana officials started.
Instead, a majority of the Board of Directors voted to keep up the efforts that OCTA staff already launched in response to the criticism: Signage, social media promotion, and security – all things that local merchants, at that OCTA board meeting, said weren’t helping what they called a crisis.
Foley was one of the earliest advocates for downtown merchants, showing up at the scene in person at their first protest inside the streetcar’s dirt construction trench in February.
Since then, she’s called on county officials to step in with cash, to meet sales plummets that some merchants – in various interviews with Voice of OC over the past few months – say threatens their store’s survival and the dwindling Latino presence that remains in downtown.
Foley, an OCTA board member, was vocally irate at her panel colleagues’ March decision not to allocate any money.
At the time, OCTA legal counsel James Donich said it wasn’t possible to give transportation dollars to the businesses under current spending guidelines – namely because he argued it would constitute a gift of public money to private interests under the California Constitution.
And while there were some exceptions – as long as the monetary assistance fulfilled a purpose for the general public, or the public purpose for which OCTA was formed – Donich said those didn’t apply, citing overhead laws and Supreme Court case precedent.
When people at the meeting mentioned a 7-year business interruption grant under LA Metro, under similar circumstances of a public transit project disrupting businesses in the neighboring county, Donich said the Metro’s justification for it “runs counter to my analysis and that of other agencies.”
“When you did your analysis, it looks like you were trying to find a way to not do something,” said OCTA board director, Katrina Foley, who’s also a county supervisor and – along with Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento – one of the most vocal advocates for sending the businesses money from OCTA.
“I would disagree with that, Director Foley,” Donich said.
Today, Foley and the merchants will ask fellow county supervisors for their take.