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Businesses Clash Over Downtown Santa Ana Strategy

Dispute: Effort by merchants group and city to woo more diverse shoppers will 'bleach' area, Latinos say.


Merchants in downtown Santa Ana have engaged a mediator to help resolve deep-seated differences over public relations and advertising campaigns intended to draw more diverse shoppers to their predominantly Latino business district.

The Santa Ana Downtown Business Assn. has severely cut back on advertising in Spanish-language newspapers and radio, instead directing the trade group's dues to improvements such as more lighting and landscaping, cleaner sidewalks and benches. Business owners with mostly Latino clienteles say they depend on such advertising to survive.

The dispute pits an old guard of merchants against newer leaders of the 635-member trade group, and it comes as tensions are rising downtown because of the city's promotion of the nascent Artists Village and its offers of incentives to certain companies and developers to do business downtown.

The Orange County Human Relations Commission has set up a mediation session Sept. 25, said Rusty Kennedy, the commission's executive director.

Many merchants say the association and city officials are trying to "bleach" the downtown by de-emphasizing Latino merchants in favor of the multi-block area of shops, galleries and restaurants attracting mostly non-Latinos.

"We are too ethnic for Santa Ana," said Louis Pescarmona, who has owned the Joyeria Guadalajara jewelry store for 27 years. "There are people with political and social muscle who want to put the pressure on us. They want to remake downtown. Instead of being 80% to 90% Latino, they want us to be a small part of the downtown. What we have now works. What they are proposing is a maybe."

Arturo Lomeli, a downtown dentist and president of the business association, said the unhappy merchants are trying "to exclude everyone but immigrants."

"They are crying wolf that everyone wants to eliminate them," Lomeli said. "Can you imagine a group of [white] merchants in Irvine saying they only want a certain kind of customer? It would cause quite an uproar."

Downtown Development Manager Matthew Lamb said he hoped the mediation would lead to a "common goal that will make a stronger downtown."

But Lamb said opponents of promoting Artists Village are represented on the 22-member association board that voted on how the downtown is marketed. Lamb serves as the association's executive director but does not vote.

"I think the city has invested ... millions and millions of dollars into the Fiesta Marketplace, a Latino shopping area" downtown, he said. "We need new catalysts for redevelopment so downtown has a lot of different textures.... We are competing for everybody's dollars. The more you can make your downtown a diverse and multilayer experience, the better off you are."

But Pescarmona, who said he pays $1,000 in annual dues to the business association, resents a new policy that nearly eliminates Spanish-language advertising.

Sam Romero, owner of a Roman Catholic gift shop, also complained that the city and the association are "not including us in decisions. They are not even promoting the fact that we are here."

Pescarmona, who formed a Concerned Merchants Committee a year ago, went so far as to make buttons and posters with slogans such as "Say No to Ethnic Quotas," referring to the city's efforts to bring more diversity downtown.

But jeweler Teresa Saldivar said they misinterpret the trade group's mission. "What's so ugly about this is that they are in the United States," Saldivar said. "They fail to understand that as a board of directors, you have to serve all the constituencies. They are only concerned about their businesses. They want Hispanic radio, Hispanic newspapers. Our argument is that we need more than that."

Lomeli estimated that over the past 16 years, more than $75,000 of annual business association dues was spent on Spanish-language advertising to promote downtown events. This year, less than $15,000 will go toward advertising, and part of that will be spent on English-language media, he said.

Each business pays an annual business license fee, and that money is given to the association. A medium-sized business pays about $300. In the past, any dues not spent on advertising were donated to nonprofit groups, said Lomeli, who became the association's president three years ago.

This year, the association will spend $120,000 on a three-year, $400,000 street-improvement plan. Next year, it plans to put $80,000 more into the project, with the city picking up the remaining $200,000.

The work will begin next month on 4th Street from Broadway to Main Street. New trees will replace old ones in corner plazas. Irrigation systems and lighting to illuminate the trees will be installed. Benches have been placed at the corners.

"We see these improvements ... as a form of advertising," Lomeli said. "It's not a traditional type of advertising, but people will see it. We want to attract all kinds of people. These kind of improvements ... do just that."

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