What is the city’s vision?

Guest Editorial

What is the city’s vision?By SCOTT O’NEIL, IWV Economic Development Corp.

I am a morning person and usually wake up at 4 a.m. On a recent morning, I found myself lying there reflecting on the earthquakes and the damage we have incurred. The city has identified $100-million-plus in needed repairs, a number that addresses the needs for our schools, the college, hospital, city infrastructure and municipal pool.

I jumped to thoughts regarding the impact of the earthquakes on our local economy. In the short run, we will take a hit. In the long run, China Lake will be fine and the subsequent reconstruction on base, in town, and in the broader Eastern Sierra region will be huge. Contractors invading our town to do the work will require lodging, food, materials, equipment and many sundry items. The reconstruction will take a few years. What an opportunity! An influx of money and know-how and a means to continue to develop the renown of our small town, which, because of the earthquakes, has gained fame.

What came after those thoughts was anxiety. Are we ready? Can our city processes handle the uptick in work? Is our planning and building department ready? There are a number of private developers that are already investigating opportunities in the local housing market, which was already hot. Now, with the emerging need of an out-of-town workforce, it is red hot.

We are well behind in meeting the demand, and at this point, any fulfillment is at least two years away. How will we respond? Will we continue in our ways where generally developers find us hard to work with? Or, will we change and become a community friendly to development and outside investors? Needless to say, I was wide awake by this time. At 4:15 I rolled out of bed to get a cup of coffee.

As I sat with my cup of joe, Ridgecrest on my mind, I decided to review where we are. My first thought was the July 17 city council meeting, which exhibited a robust discussion between a local developer-builder and the city staff. Chuck Roulund, owner and operator of IWV Construction Company, was objecting to the Landscape and Lighting District fees charged to his developments (he has two housing developments ongoing in the city). He noted that the fee structure was confusing, the plans developed by the city consultant were inconsistent and the funds to be generated could not clearly be tied to the provision of services. He threw up his hands, giving in, since the delay would cost too much money. Chuck is one of only a couple of developers who have actually responded to the gauntlet Joan Johnson, Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division executive director, threw down at the IWV Economic Outlook Conference in February 2018. A year and a half later, there are no new housing or apartment project underway — except for Chuck’s.

During the course of the city council discussions, it becomes clear that any attempt to delay the issue, in order to untangle the conflict, gain clarity and understand exactly what our objectives regarding these districts are and what they should cost, was not to be had. The city council passed the first reading of Ordinance 4-1, with Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens being the only objector. They kicked the can down the road and left our developer confused, frustrated and avowing not to do business in the city again. It’s interesting to me that the council often takes the expedient course of action rather than having the tougher discussion. Furthermore, it frustrates me that the staff does not tee up and facilitate such discussions — especially ones on key issues regarding the ease of doing business in our city. It further frustrates me that our council does not demand it.

I am not saying we should give our developers free reign. When we require them to develop infrastructure that is not directly part of their project, we should be fair. We should not require them to pay impact fees that are already structured to cover such infrastructure. Regarding the lighting and landscape district, I am not sure of our goal. I do understand the intent, which is to generate an asset to cover future cost of lighting our town and to beautify it by landscaping public grounds — like our boulevard islands and green spaces along our streets. If this is what we are charging for, then the funds generated should be used for that purpose. Last time I looked, our boulevards and greens spaces were in pretty bad shape. They seem to be maintained only when they become an eyesore, not on a routine basis. If the vision is to beautify our city — then do it, use the resources for that purpose.

My thoughts then went to other recent dealings between the city and our builders. Last March I presented to the city a list of trending concerns from local contractors. This information was gathered in partnership between the Indian Wells Valley Economic Development Corp. and the Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors, as we explored how to achieve the kind of growth and development that will be key to our economic vibrancy. At that time the city acknowledge that there were some problems and seemed to accept some of my constructive criticisms, including one to develop a builder’s guide on how to navigate the city processes and estimate the fee and permit costs. The guide would include a conflict resolution process, so when problems occur there would be a defined way to get them definitively resolved. The guide’s development was assigned to the City Economic Development Committee.

Since then, we’ve heard the stories from some local businesses (including Tiny and Rusty Warren), the hospital, and now IWV Construction that conducting business with the city is complicated, expensive, inconsistent, confusing, unstable and frustrating. In the absence of clear process, projects get stalled, pared back or even scrapped.

Last winter the city started actions to restructure the permit fee schedule and Councilperson Stephens presented to the city’s Economic Development Committee an initial glimpse at a builder’s guide. I participated in both initiatives, and I plan to remain involved. But, for whatever reason, both actions seem to be stalled. By my third cup of coffee, I began to wonder what this means for all the reconstruction work on the horizon.

Now consider the recent articles regarding the low inventory of rental properties in town. This is not new — Johnson made her plea 18 months ago. But since then no sizable quantity of new rentals has been built. As our major employers continue to grow and hire, the demand increases and the market gets tighter. It is summer and the new employees for the base are showing up; 30 arrived the Monday following the 7.1, another 20 a couple of weeks later! I wondered, where are these new professionals living? Soon legions of contractors will be descending on our community looking for places to stay. On my fourth cup, I asked myself, how will we respond? How can we respond?!

So, what is the city doing to help alleviate this crisis? Recently residential and apartment developers have shown much interest in Ridgecrest. We need to act to convince them that Ridgecrest is where they should invest. We have a huge need and that need is only going to grow as reconstruction gets under way.

But there is a lack of housing all over California. Developers are businesspeople, and they going to invest their time and money where they can get a solid return; and, more importantly, where gaining success is easy. We are in a situation where we have high demand with scarce supply and in an environment where competition for developers and builders is hyper. Why would a developer invest in Ridgecrest if doing business here is hard and the returns are lower than elsewhere in California?

We need to be developer friendly, focus on the long-term building of our tax base (the only sustainable way of funding infrastructure and services) and essentially break even on our fee and permit costs. Our city process must be painless, straightforward and transparent. Fees charged should cover only the staff time or services associated with the projects. We should be bending over backwards to attract and retain these investors!

Speaking of the long-term view … I was starting to shake. Earthquake? No, too much caffeine! I reflected back to the recent city council meeting, where expedience, not the long view, was the outcome. I began to wonder if our leaders had a common vision of our future.

I worry that we are distracted by day-to-day, make-ends-meet pressure, underpinned by a woe-is-me attitude that we are so underwater with regard to our annual budget, that we are not thinking properly about building a future. As we prepare to reconstruct after the earthquakes, I wonder what our city council’s vision is regarding the future of Ridgecrest? Do they even have one? If so, is it common? I’d like to see this discussed in the near future at a council meeting.

I worry, based on recent actions, that we’ll try to “get well” by charging exorbitant, one-time fees and demanding extravagant improvements from those willing to invest. The goal is good, but the approach is futile; it is a “fix” that will fail. The fact that “we did something, it generated money/added a nicety/forced conformance” gives only the appearance of success. With this approach, we may win a battle but lose the war. Our investors may not even engage — no matter how attractive the market is. They may find more appealing options to choose from.

I would rather see us with a long-term strategy that focuses on building our future by rebuilding our tax base. This will take longer, and we may not get what we ideally want, but even if we could get that immediately we can’t afford to maintain it. Better to build moderately, grow our tax base, then slowly add niceties. To do this, we should adopt an approach making building in Ridgecrest easy, transparent and very low cost.

We can expand our tax base by encouraging strategic developments that will bring in new revenues to our community. We can employ strategies that keep more of our dollars at home by expanding our markets, not continuing to segment them. We need to grow the size of our pie, not continue dividing it into smaller pieces.

At the heart of these questions is “vision.” What is the vision of our city council? How are councilmembers holding the staff accountable to execute that vision? How are we enlisting organizations like the IWVEDC, Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce, Ridgecrest Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, hoteliers, clubs and citizens to help?

A clear vision of our future will help us in our decision-making and add clarity for those willing to invest. As we grasp the opportunity the earthquakes have brought, our vision is more important than ever. Now we have a chance to reconstruct and build our reputation as a great place to both live and invest. This opportunity will last for only a short while, but the reputation of our community character will persist long after the earthquake reconstruction ends.

Coffee pot is empty … what say you, Ridgecrest?

Story First Published: 2019-08-09