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City Enlists Help in Its Struggle to Find Itself : Tourism: Santa Clarita has a theme park, poetry festival and an identity crisis. Even authors who called it 'fabulous' couldn't pinpoint its location.


SANTA CLARITA — Sometimes it seems as if everyone in Southern California has an agent. Now, even the city of Santa Clarita has one.

Tucked into a concrete triangle formed by the Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways, Santa Clarita encompasses 43 square miles of prominent ridgelines, majestic oak trees and bedroom communities.

Its population is affluent, dominated by families proud of the area's good schools and low crime rate. Its economy is diverse, strong enough to fund public services and even launch a regional shopping center during Southern California's recent recession. Six Flags Magic Mountain fills much of the western horizon and is the valley's most recognizable landmark.

Despite all this, Santa Clarita has yet to project an image desirable enough to outsiders to lure out-of-town industries, conventions or tourists into the city for business or pleasure.

"The image is in a state of flux right now," said Tricia Ezell, chairwoman of the Santa Clarita Tourism Bureau. "Whatever positive impact we can have on that is (our) goal."

Earlier this month, the tourism bureau, which is a joint effort of the city and the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce, commissioned Long Advertising of Santa Clarita to help create a marketing campaign to attract visitors.

"The tourism industry is a multibillion-dollar industry," said Ezell. "We certainly want our share of that pie."

It is but the latest attempt to establish Santa Clarita's identity, an obstacle that the city has grappled with throughout its seven-year history.

City leaders first encountered the problem in the months following Santa Clarita's incorporation in 1987, when directory assistance operators denied the city's existence.

Since then, a slogan contest, cowboy poetry festival and even outside recognition of the Valencia community as a desirable place to live each have garnered mixed results as the city has tried to cultivate an image of Santa Clarita.

In 1992, the city sponsored a motto contest--offering free dinners, gift certificates, portraits and more to anyone who could sum up Santa Clarita in a few kind words. The winning entry was to be printed on city documents, stationery and promotional materials.

More than 200 suggestions, ranging from simple to sarcastic, poured in. After browsing through entries such as "The Crown of North County," "Democracy's Playground" and "Land of the Golden Dweeb," City Council members permanently shelved the motto idea.

The identity crisis popped up again in 1993.

Santa Clarita's master-planned Valencia community was named one of "50 Fabulous Places to Raise Your Family" in a 1993 book of the same name. Written by a couple from Baldwin Harbor, N.Y.--a certified financial planner and marketing researcher--the 320-page book praised Valencia as a "family mecca complete with exquisite neighborhoods, carefully planned commercial properties and awesome recreational possibilities."

It was chosen from among 300 communities nationwide and stood out because of its school system and low crime rate. Unfortunately, Valencia was listed in Ventura County instead of Los Angeles County and placed about 30 miles farther north of Los Angeles than it actually is. Residents were also surprised to learn they supposedly receive an average of 10 inches of snow per year.

More recently, Santa Clarita hosted a three-day Cowboy Poetry, Music and Film Festival that organizers hope will serve as a recurring large-scale tourist event. Held for the first time seven months ago, it is too early to tell if cowboy poetry will become a defining event for the area.

Although it drew more than 3,200 people and pumped an estimated $244,000 into the local economy, some residents blasted the use of taxpayer money on poetry rather than traditional public services such as roads. Additional criticism came when Santa Clarita officials unsuccessfully applied for $22,500 in federal earthquake recovery funds, saying the festival lost money when its original site was damaged in the Northridge temblor.

Despite the continuing identity problem, Santa Clarita officials believe the city has better name recognition than in the past.

"I think people know more about Santa Clarita now than they did seven years ago," said Gail Foy, city public information officer. "Hopefully, (the image) is a little bit of everything. We've evolved beyond 'that place by Magic Mountain.' "

For its latest effort, the tourism bureau has reserved a full-page ad in the Automobile Club of Southern California's 1995 travel guide for the California/Nevada region. Meanwhile, Santa Clarita brochures have been placed in display racks in Bakersfield, Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley area.

The brochures focus on the Santa Clarita Valley's diversity, from auto racing at Saugus Speedway to horseback riding on local trails to boating at the Castaic Lake Recreation Area. The historic William S. Hart Museum, Saugus train station and panoramic Vasquez Rocks are also touted.

For the moment, though, Santa Clarita is still a bit of a mystery to those who help tourists plan their vacations.

"What's the main attraction there?" asked Mark Lewis, operator of Lewis Travel in Fresno. "They have not reached me through any of the publications I keep up with."

"Magic Mountain is right there. Other than that, all I know is that it's on the way to Los Angeles," said Betty York of Bakersfield Travel.

The Santa Clarita Tourism Bureau is scheduled to meet Tuesday for its next regular planning session.

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