Three decades ago, Panorama City was envisioned as a retail and commercial center of the mid-San Fernando Valley, complete with towering office buildings and a sprawling shopping mall. That was before hard times hit the area.
These days, building facades in the small community of nearly 18,000 are splattered with graffiti, and many stores along main thoroughfares have gone out of business. Nearly all of Panorama City's large office complexes have "for lease" and "office space available" signs posted in front.
Even the area's bright spot, the 33-year-old Panorama Mall, can't escape the problems. Across the street, dirt lots and empty storefronts sit like taunting reminders of the way things have gone for much of the business community.
Early Promise Fulfilled
Touted by civic leaders in the 1950s and '60s as an up-and-coming business center, Panorama City at first seemed to fulfill its promise. The business community flourished and, along with it, the Panorama City Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber had a healthy bank account, held frequent fund-raisers and wielded clout at City Hall. By 1974, Los Angeles City officials responded to the chamber's persistent lobbying and agreed that the community deserved its place on the map. And, for the first time, Panorama City's name appeared on maps of the San Fernando Valley.
"It was a nice area to live in, the shopping district was quite nice and there were a number of office buildings flourishing there," said City Councilman Hal Bernson, who lived in Panorama City for a year in 1966.
George Koutsoubas, who headed the chamber in the late 1960s, said he remembers when "it used to be prestigious to say you worked in Panorama City."
"You had quite an impact on politicians in those days," he said. "It's amazing the difference between what it was and what it is now."
Just as Panorama City has had problems in recent years attracting and keeping businesses, its chamber has had problems attracting and keeping members. The chamber, about $12,000 in debt, recently closed its doors. It is unclear when--or even if--it will reopen.
Just before it closed, chamber Treasurer Gloria McCord sent invitations for a fund-raiser to all of the 1,700 businesses in the Panorama City-Sepulveda area. Only six responded.
"No one wants to join the chamber," McCord said. "If you don't have support from the community, it's hopeless. Most chambers have problems, but this one seems to have the worst problems."
Even when the chamber merged in 1982 with one in Sepulveda, it didn't seem to help. The chamber's problems seemed to worsen.
As recently as a year ago, the chamber boasted more than 100 dues-paying members, McCord said. Now, there are about 50.
"I went to a couple of chamber meetings and looked at merchants there and they all really needed help, they were looking for answers," said one businessman who recently moved his office from Panorama City to Northridge.
"I think the chamber, very frankly, simply didn't do anything at all."
Most business people join chambers of commerce to meet each other and generate business deals. But chambers also typically disseminate information about their communities and work at promoting them.
Plagued by 'Lethargy'
But instead of promoting Panorama City, some businessmen say, the chamber has watched it slide.
Burt Boeckmann, owner of Galpin Ford, one of the area's most successful businesses, said the organization is plagued by "lethargy."
"You have a community that's going somewhat downhill and people aren't willing to do anything about it," he said.
Although there are no precise statistics available on vacancies, about one-fourth of the offices in large buildings are empty, and several businesses--notably banks and insurance companies--have closed their Panorama City branches within the last five years.
The Wells Fargo Bank branch, one of the largest branch offices in the community, closed in March, 1984, because it "wasn't living up to our expectations" in deposits, business accounts, loans and consumer and saving accounts, a bank spokeswoman said.
Businesses ranging from fitness centers to medical offices in the heart of Panorama City also have closed.
"We do have more business turnover there than we have in other areas," said Chuck Firnwalt, senior field representative for the city's Department of Business Licenses, Tax and Permits. He said, however, the city does not keep statistics on the number of businesses that have closed in recent years.
Richard Katz, the Democratic assemblyman whose district encompasses Panorama City, attributes the decline to the "Western boom-town mentality," a gradual move westward in the Valley.