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VENTURA COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Growing Pains for Santa Paula

With big economic decisions pending, don't shut the public out

September 07, 1997

There are no easy decisions for Santa Paula.

In recent years the city with Ventura County's lowest median income and highest unemployment rate has been forced to accept an unwanted county jail on its western fringe and a massive landfill to the east. It has grown nearly to the limits of its General Plan and can only expand by sacrilegiously plowing under some of the farmland that is its heritage.

Yet good things are happening. A $3.5-million revitalization project is cleaning up a downtown that already has that inviting "small-town feel" city planners love so much. The local schools are embarking on several ambitious, if controversial, innovations. And now there is talk of bringing in a second major grocery chain to compete with Vons.

We support city officials' efforts to get their town's economy moving. But public decisions need to be made in public--especially tough ones. And they don't come much tougher than debating whether to sell off City Hall and Veterans Memorial Park to make room for an Albertson's store and shopping center.

Last week, the City Council gave interim City Manager Murray Warden permission to negotiate with Albertson's Inc. about selling the four downtown acres currently occupied by City Hall and the park. Preliminary movement toward these talks has been proceeding in private for weeks, causing citizens to protest that the secrecy was stifling public debate.

There are good arguments pro and con. The current City Hall is old and small and not ideally suited to running a modern city. The Albertson's deal could buy a bigger, better one, and the sales-tax income it produces could feed the city budget for many years. The downtown fix-up plan already includes another park, which could be expanded. A large grocery-drugstore such as Albertson's would guarantee traffic into downtown, which is far preferable to a more typical location on the outskirts of town--possibly displacing lemon orchards.

But how would downtown merchants fare? Does a big-box store belong in the pedestrian-oriented area? And should Veterans Memorial Park, which city officials boast of as their town square, be on the market at all?

All of these are questions to be debated by the citizens of Santa Paula and their elected leaders, vigorously and in the open.

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