It’s been a major year for Downtown Santa Ana, where a $509 million rail project could put the area and its Latino merchants on an entirely new track.
The story goes back at least a decade, when a wave of small business owners first protested a tax on them collected by Downtown Inc., the downtown economic interest group which in turn was tasked with promoting the area.
Critics, however, saw a relationship between the group and the area’s changing demographics, and argued the tax primarily benefited downtown’s hip scene while the Latino footprint faded.
The opposition prompted city officials to hit the reset button in 2013, slashing the tax rates and splitting the proceeds with a newly-created group called the Santa Ana Business Council, run as an arm of Downtown Inc., which would do more Latino shop promotions.
More than 10 years later, however, things have come full circle.
Some merchants found themselves back where they were, again arguing the tax benefited bars and restaurants more than places like general stores and Latino accounting services.
City Council members seemed to agree, moving forward in November with a preliminary process to dissolve what’s called the downtown Business Improvement District.
The struggle against the streetcar and the downtown business group has politically mobilized La Cuatro’s remaining cultural vestiges to a degree not seen in years.
The only difference is what got merchants up in arms.
This time, it was what they called a “Train to Hell.”
Some OC Streetcar supporters, however, see the upcoming 4-mile route between Santa Ana and Garden Grove as a possible blueprint for a countywide rail system to create a more mass transit-reliant commuter culture in a county of freeways, pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, parking fights, and smog.
Indeed, one of its most vocal proponents was also mayor of Santa Ana for roughly two decades.
It was the view of former Mayor Miguel Pulido – who served on the board of the streetcar’s parent agency, the OC Transportation Authority – that the streetcar was the type of project that would bring the county into the future, while enabling other developments to occur.
But there were also questions about what would happen to the area’s merchants in the meantime, with streets torn open for tracks to be laid while pedestrian traffic suffered and dust floated off the uncovered ditches and into the air on sidewalks, shopfronts and local vending carts.
The Santa Ana Business Council was one group that called for mitigation strategies before work on the project began.
Then began the street closures.
Outcry over the project’s choking of customer traffic had erupted by 2019, after construction prompted shutdowns along Fourth Street that everyone from cafe owners to longtime local jewelers said sacked their sales.
And by February last year, merchants were climbing dirt mounds inside the construction trenches out of protest, demanding compensation for all their lost business.
It happened multiple times throughout 2022. The first time, on Feb. 9, forced an impromptu town hall between city and county officials and merchants who remained in the dirt pit while elected leaders addressed them.
There, officials like former mayor Vicente Sarmiento – now a county supervisor – and Supervisor Katrina Foley, who sat on OCTA, pledged to advocate for an assistance fund.
Funding eventually came, but in increments.
And with resistance.
In March, the Santa Ana City Council members committed $1.5 million to a downtown economic assistance fund that businesses could apply for, eventually approving another round, bringing the total to $3 million.
But even that wouldn’t be enough when divided amongst everyone. So merchants later that month stepped back into the trench, where workers in hardhats arrived at sunrise to a bridal dress erected in the work zone.
In April, Foley attempted to set up another fund through OCTA, an idea supported by a crowd of merchants who would, later that year, bring bridal dresses to OCTA’s meetings as a demonstration.
Fellow transportation officials, however, weren’t so keen.
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 then took her efforts to the Board of Supervisors.
And in May, the board unanimously approved a $1.2 million economic subsidy program for those hurt financially by the streetcar.
The incremental nature of the assistance – coupled with the long-lasting financial impact of the project’s disruption – had downtown’s Latino merchants increasingly curious about where their money was going, and what it was used for.
That turned their attention to Downtown Inc., a group some say they only learned about after experiencing the streetcar construction’s disruptions.
Now there’s an effort to redo the downtown’s approach to economic enhancement, starting with the dissolution of the Business Improvement District.
Downtown Inc. President Ryan Chase and Santa Ana Business Council representative Madeleine Spencer have urged against the idea, arguing their efforts have brought tangible improvements to downtown.
Yet a coalition of Latino merchants – led by Perla’s Mexican Cuisine and accounting firm owner Ana Laura Padilla – were pushing to rethink the area’s needs on its commercial and cultural ends.
And their presence at a Nov. 15 City Council meeting prompted an initial council vote in their favor.
Nothing’s final yet. There are more steps to the dissolution process. At their regular Dec. 20 meeting, council members voted on “a resolution of intent” to dissolve the Business Improvement District.
After that, the council is expected to set a public hearing and final vote on the special tax district’s dissolution for Jan. 17 of next year.