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May 12, 1988|JOHN O'DELL

John Stahler, 37, is a student of history, economics and business administration. He also is manager of Chez Cary in Orange, one of the Southland's leading gourmet restaurants and haunts of the powerful.

And while the success of his restaurant reflects Orange County's affluence and economic expansion, the 22-year resident said he believes the time has come to impose some constraints on growth for fear of losing what has made the county successful.

For a restaurant where dinner for two can approximate a monthly car payment, Orange County is a great place to be, he said. "This is an attractive place for us because of the economy; because it attracts economically affluent people."

They come here, he said, because homes in Newport Beach average $500,000 and because the weather is great and because in Orange County they can live close to their yachts and their corporate jets and be near great restaurants and the Performing Arts Center and still be only a few minutes from the office.

Stahler, who began his restaurant career as a dishwasher in a sandwich shop in Orange 21 years ago, was among the 35% of survey respondents who said that business conditions in the county today are excellent. He also was one of the 35% who said the county is now a more attractive place for his business than in the past.

In both instances, he said that the increasing population and affluence are primary reasons for his faith in the local economy.

And, as did many of those interviewed, Stahler said he believes the broad business base in the county is the principal reason why the local economy manages to outperform the nation's year after year.

Stahler believes that traffic congestion is the county's major problem, but doesn't see the area's soaring housing prices as a major worry from a business point of view. After all, he said, a restaurant like Chez Cary caters to the affluent, and higher housing prices will just increase the number of wealthy people who call the county home.

But even though Stahler links the county's healthy economy to growth, he said he intends to vote for the slow-growth initiative in June.

In that apparent inconsistency, he is like many of his fellow executives.

"If we don't slow growth down, things will get worse with traffic and smog and congestion," Stahler said. "We have to do it . . . and I don't think it means no growth, just controlled growth."

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