Getting Down to Business: Council Candidates Discuss Whittier's Local Economy

Getting Down to Business: Council Candidates Discuss Whittier's Local Economy

Whittier City Council and mayoral candidates discussed their vision for business in Whittier and their proposals to support the local economy at the Whittier Area Chamber of Commerce Whittier City Council Candidates’ Forum on Wednesday, January 22.

All five mayoral candidates, Rolando Cano, Louis Reyes, I.L. Leon Savage, Christine Singer-Luna, and incumbent Joe Vinatieri, participated in the Chamber forum.

In his opening statement at the Chamber forum, bookkeeping professional Savage said his primary concern for Whittier was safety. “My goal is to increase the police department by this year by 480 policemen. That will put us at a solid 600,” he said. Such outsize numbers are a familiar echo from Savage’s  forum presentations in his bid for the mayorship in 2018 and his frequent comments at City Council meetings. Later in this forum he referred to the city’s PERS retirement shortfall as money in the bank that could be spent for more police.

In his opening statement, Reyes described growing up in a manufacturing family, attending USC as a returning student, and counting four generations of his family making Whittier their home. “I have eight years of executive and legislative experience working for local government,” he said. “I know many who worked for the Chamber when I worked for the state senate and a local assembly member in the early 2000s. My community activism has been with the Whittier Latino Coalition; I was a founding member in 1999. I’ve spent thousands of hours, dedicating 15 years to increasing Latino participation. We’ve come a long way since 1999.” Reyes, a communication consultant with a master’s degree in public policy, said his commitment to improving Whittier’s future is inspired by his young children.

Aerospace engineer and security director Cano suggested that small local businesses are not attracting enough custom, and that large shareholder-owned businesses were the answer to building a local customer base. “I see so many businesses here that are so successful, and it’s through the hard work of every single business owner. They all bring a special flavor to Whittier,” he said. “But one of the things we lack in Uptown and other commercial areas is foot traffic. I would one day love to see, for instance, an Apple store in Uptown, a Portos at The Quad, and a Chesecake Factory out at the Whittwood Mall.” Cano said his intentions also include increased accountability at the City for carrying out community safety plans beyond the design phase.

Vinatieri, who has served on the Whittier City Council for 14 years, said about his tenure as Whittier’s mayor for the past four years, “It’s been a good time, and I’m actually very positive about things. I’m positive because I like the direction we’re going right now. We have a new city manager, probably the most important thing the City Council did in 2019.” Vinatieri listed other achievements: “New Central Library. Changes in Uptown that you’re going to be seeing. The Groves of Whittier. But, we’ve had the issue of the homelessness, which has been a very difficult issue, but I’m glad to say, we’ve seen the green belt, we’ve seen Parnell Park, and the things that are happening there. And, there’s a plan. There is a plan, and you’re going to be hearing about it.” Vinatieri also mentioned bringing in the Gold Line, more jobs, more police officers, and keeping the city fiscally stable.

Singer-Luna, a lifelong Whittier resident and cultural arts commissioner, said, “I believe a good government should solve local problems. The elected leaders must communicate with residents, and we need foresight,” she said, referencing budget shortfalls as well as looking to the planet’s future. She described her What’s Up Whittier podcast and support for local nonprofit fundraisers as meaningful parts of her civic work. “My time working working for the Whittier Uptown Association and as a committee member for the Uptown Whittier Improvement Association has given me the experience and knowledge one needs to have today for what is already happening for Uptown Whittier. I know our Uptown could be as vibrant, clean, and safe as other cities,” she said in support of the Uptown Whittier Streetscape Beautification Plan.

The mayoral candidates discussed their plans for a business-friendly Whittier: 

“Business-friendly means that small business can thrive, that there is less regulation, that when you need help, there is the ability to get help,” Reyes said. He described his work on the committee for the Central Library upgrade, which included a vision for small business resources including meeting rooms, co-work space, printing services, and more. Reyes also said that street safety and cleanliness in Uptown are the city’s responsibility. “The city should put infrastructure in the budget, not rely on the Chamber or any other group,” he said.

Cano said he envisions bringing back the Uptown Festival and inviting successful local businesses to open a second storefront at The Groves. “We have an exciting opportunity at Nelles, but all we ever hear is the big companies that are coming in and out. What about small businesses?” he said. “Business-friendly is allowing you as a business owner to expedite your ideologies as far as the next business plan you have, make it easier for you, and not wait through a process that takes three years…to accomplish your goal to open your own establishment.”

Vinatieri said that business-friendly in Whittier means “a place where people want to come and do business, because it’s got a great demographic, it’s got the things that are necessary to be successful. It’s an attitude that’s put out there by the city and by the businesses and by the Chamber. That’s the most important thing.” Vinatieri cited Whittier’s two-time recognition by LAEDC for most business-friendly cities in Los Angeles County and described a “red team” program that approaches businesses planning to leave Whittier to offer support. He also pointed to a recent change in City policy to award City contracts to Whittier-based bidders within 5% of the lowest bid. 

Singer-Luna spoke in favor of equitable treatment for new businesses. “We need to have a balance between [supporting] multi-million-dollar corporations coming in and supporting our small businesses that don’t have a big bank account to wait, and wait, and wait. Every single month that our city is waiting, they’re paying overhead, they still have to pay for their rent, they still need to pay their employees, but their doors are still not open. That is not business-friendly to me.” Singer-Luna renewed her advocacy for forward movement on the Uptown Whittier Streetscape Beautification Plan, citing Walt Disney’s Disneyland philosophy of keeping streets neat as a pin. 

Savage said, “Business-friendly to me means I can go to the store and not have to concern myself with someone stalking me in a rant, because they want some change, because they’re in a different mind state. And we all have come in contact with that in this city. So, it’s not friendly. Business-friendly to me means I can go and get a haircut at the barbershop, and my children and grandchildren can go and watch a movie, and meet me right after it’s over, without any worries. We don’t live in a business-friendly community because we are sorely unprotected. We need to be more protected. It does no good to have any of this if we don’t have the proper protection that we need as far as the police.”

Editor’s Note: In upcoming coverage of candidate forums, Sustainable City News will circle back to candidates’ comments on housing, homelessness, environment, etc.

Candidates for Whittier City Council District 1 and District 3 also shared their vision for Whittier’s business and economic future:

District 1 candidate Magdalena Barragnon Moe (Maggie Moe) described her civic work with the Whittier Sunrise Rotary, Whittier Regional Symphony, and the Whittier Voters Coalition. Her goals include business development, public safety and resources for first responders, and improving education and the arts with an emphasis on special education.

Defending her District 3 seat, Cathy Warner described positive changes at the City of Whittier achieved during her tenure as a City Council member. Despite the city’s loss of five car dealerships in the last recession, she said that the city has enjoyed a net gain of 94 new businesses in the last six months and a net gain of 400 in the past four years.

District 3 challenger, attorney Alex Moisa, cited his service on many civic and nonprofit boards. He promised to work hard to address economic development and budget deficits. “I want to take Whittier to a different direction, one where our residents aren’t afraid to frequent our local parks, one where you don’t have to go to other cities to shop, and one that supports local small businesses. A strong city is a strong city for business.” 

District 3 challenger, professor Yasmin Ferrada, cited a lack of innovation at City Hall. “Time and time again we often meet festering problems with reactionary responses that often cost our city more money,” Ferrada said, despite the fact that “our city is made up of go-getters, dreamers, and folks that make people the amazing city that it is.” Ferrada would support local businesses by cutting red tape and making the permit processes for local businesses much faster.

Candidates were asked about the biggest successes, challenges, and opportunities as it relates to businesses within their district.

Moe prioritized cleaner streets in Uptown and more lighting throughout District 1 to give businesses a boost. District 3 candidate Jessica Martinez, who is simultaneously running for Assembly District 57 on the March 3 ballot, believes the biggest challenge in District 1 is getting rid of food trucks that compete with local restaurants. She thinks this move will generate as much traffic in Uptown as is presently seen in Old Town Pasadena. 

Moisa said that dollar stores were to blame for business on Whittier Boulevard floundering and losing major retailers. He said, “The City spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Whittier Boulevard Specific Plan and the Uptown Specific Plan only to disregard them with variances.” Ferrada said Whittier can’t apply the same model to District 1, which includes Uptown, to District 3, which lacks walkability. She proposes to decrease regulations, e.g., on sandwich boards for mom and pop shops. Warner touts successes in redevelopment of the former car dealerships in East Whittier, including The Gables condominium development. The cited a challenge facing the Whittwood Mall, saying Sears and JC Penny need to change their business models.

Candidates commented next on what “business friendly” means to each, and what they would do to grow existing businesses and attract new businesses to town. 

In District 1, Martinez proposed to remove as many regulatory barriers as possible and offer tax incentives. Moe said she would like to attract manufacturing, removing zoning laws that prohibit warehouses. She also proposed to reduce permitting and alcohol licensing regulations for restaurants.

District 3 challenger Ferrada proposed to decrease waiting times for permits that work against local small businesses. She suggested that vehicle charging stations will attract people passing through Whittier to stop and patronize Whittier businesses.

District 3 incumbent Warner touted the business-friendly awards the city has won twice in six years and the Community Development Department’s one-stop shop to expedite permit processes, contracting with outside planners when there is a backlog. She cited attracting an In-N-Out after years of courting this company.

District 3 challenger Moisa disputed Warner’s sanguine assessment of streamlining the permit process. He agreed with other challengers that the permit process is too expensive, slow and complicated.

Watch the whole forum here.

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