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Sierra Madre : Other San Gabriel Valley cities mourn the loss of their rural charm. It's intact here--but this small town may not be able to afford to keep it.

January 24, 1988|Mike Ward | Times Staff Writer

Jerry Meyer says he likes owning a Hallmark store in Sierra Madre because he knows his customers by name, can take checks without asking for identification and can let merchandise go out the door with people who say they will come back later and pay, and actually do.

This is shop-keeping in small-town America. His store, the Paper Palace, and the whole town of Sierra Madre, Meyer said, looks and feels as if it had been picked up from the Midwest and plopped down in Southern California.

Sierra Madre is the kind of place, he said, where people stroll the streets at night licking ice cream cones, where volunteers man the fire truck and the ambulance, and where the heart of the business district has stop signs instead of traffic signals.

"We have a traffic jam in the afternoon that lasts about three minutes," Meyer said.

There are no supermarkets, just two grocery stores. People buy tools in a little hardware store, not a giant home improvement center. The coin laundry is named Coin Laundry and the restaurant is called The Only Place in Town.

If you want your car fixed, you look for buildings with big signs painted on them that say Garage.

There are a couple of sandwich shops, but no McDonald's, no Burger King, no Wendy's. If you insist on fast food from a chain outlet, you have a choice of the regular or extra crispy entrees at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But although visitors may find it pleasantly quaint, the business area of Sierra Madre is not growing, city officials say, and it is not providing city government with the amount of tax revenue the city needs. As a result, city officials have begun to explore in a tentative way how the city might create more revenue through redevelopment.

Mayor Andrew Roy Buchan said the city must be cautious. "What we really have in mind," he said, "is upgrading the retail area in a way that isn't going to disfigure the city."

Sierra Madre, with 10,800 residents, takes in less than two square miles. It is bordered by the mountains on the north, Pasadena on the west and Arcadia on the east and south.

The residential area is a mix of condominiums, apartments and houses, a few dating to the last century. There are only a few housing tracts, and the homes include everything from bungalows to estates. There are new houses, old houses, new houses built to look old, restored houses, houses that need to be restored, and houses that need to be torn down. Big houses sit next to little ones. Because of that mix, said real estate agent Judy Webb, one neighbor can be a millionaire and another can be on welfare.

The business section consists of several blocks along Sierra Madre Boulevard and two along Baldwin Avenue.

Joan Reichardt, a design consultant who surveyed the business area in an effort to get a grant for Sierra Madre under a program that helps cities preserve and invigorate downtown areas, said retail stores have been disappearing over the past five years. "People feel Sierra Madre is slipping away," she said.

Reichardt, who has lived in Sierra Madre nearly all of her 41 years, said it was once "a self-sufficient community" with a hotel, car dealership, dress shops, appliance stores and other retail businesses. Now the storefronts are being taken over by engineers, real estate agents and service businesses such as beauty shops.

Professional people are attracted to Sierra Madre, she said, because of the low-stress, small-town atmosphere, and it may be cheaper to rent a storefront here than office space somewhere else.

Reichardt said the city has 20 beauty and nail salons, but nearly all the shoe and clothing stores have gone out of business.

City Administrator James McRea said: "If you go back 15 years, you could buy an automobile from a Ford agency, you could buy clothes, maybe you couldn't buy a pillow case, but you could pretty much survive by shopping locally."

Today, McRea said: "If you want to come to Sierra Madre to have lunch and get your hair done, there's no problem. If you want to have lunch and buy a dress, you've got a problem."

McRea said there hasn't been a new commercial building constructed in Sierra Madre in five years, and sales tax revenue has remained flat, while neighboring cities have picked up business. He said Sierra Madre receives about $17 per person in sales tax a year, while the average for other cities in California is close to $100.

The city has done "reasonably well in living within its resources," he said, but only by keeping employees' salaries low, trimming services and building a backlog of streets that need to be repaired.

As Councilman Clem L. Bartolai said: "The moment of truth is approaching."

It will not be enough, he said, for the city to add a retail store or two to produce a little more sales tax. "There's got to be something much bigger than that. It's scary in a way."

The council last week invited City Atty. Charles Martin and a redevelopment consultant, Fred Lyte, to suggest how the city might use its redevelopment authority to get additional revenue.

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